How Do I Deal with Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Work?

Your stress is building — try these tips for staying calm

Co-workers discuss a project at their desks

It happened again. Your coworker “accidentally” forgot to include you on an important email chain. Last week — oops! — he failed to invite you to a major meeting. But when you bring it up, he feigns innocence.

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Congratulations! You’ve been given the gift of a passive-aggressive coworker. And you’re expected to spend 40 hours a week with this person? How are you supposed to get the job done without sending your blood pressure sky high?

Understanding passive-aggressive personalities

People with passive-aggressive personalities are all about avoiding conflict. “Instead of expressing their negative emotions outright, they do it indirectly,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

A passive-aggressive colleague won’t tell you she’s too busy to take another project. She’ll just turn in the report late — or intentionally do a sloppy job so she’ll never be stuck with the task again. 

A coworker might be all smiles when you’re talking one-on-one — then criticize your work once you’re in a room full of other people. Other delightful strategies include the backhanded compliment (“Wow, I did not expect this report to be so thorough!”) and the silent treatment (“…”).

Now would be the time to close your office door and let out a nice cathartic scream.

Passive-aggressive behaviors have one thing in common: “It’s a breakdown in communication,” Dr. Borland says. “Instead of saying why they’re upset and sharing their concerns, they keep you at bay.”

So how on earth do you deal? Before you dust off your résumé and craft an exit plan, try these six tricks.

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1. You do you

Remember what your parents used to tell you about dealing with an annoying sibling or classmate: You can’t fix someone else’s bad behavior. Remind yourself that their communication problem is just that — their problem.

“It can be freeing to remember that they’re going to do what they’re going to do. You can’t change that,” Dr. Borland says. “All you can do is control your reaction to their behavior.”

2. Take the high road

Sure, it might be fun to imagine knocking your nemesis down a peg or two. (Go ahead. Take a moment and imagine it.)

But a zinger of a comeback won’t really accomplish what you imagine it will. (Sorry!) Remember, your passive-aggressive coworker is trying to get a rise out of you. Resist the temptation to get sucked in.

“If they’re sarcastic, matching that tone won’t make the situation better,” Dr. Borland says. “Try to be as assertive as possible, telling the person how you feel, calmly and respectfully.”

3. Hit the pause button

It’s human nature to feel the tension building when someone is undermining you at work. But nobody needs to see you erupt. Take some deep breaths before you respond.

4. Respond strategically

Pointing out a coworker’s bad behavior can put them on the defensive. Instead of assigning blame (“You missed the deadline last week”), choose your words with care (“We need to make sure this email gets out by Friday.”) 

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Yes, you know it was their fault, and yes, it’s annoying to dance around it. But a little sidestepping can make your life easier.

5. Schedule a massage

Or a night out with friends, a hike in the woods, a long, hot bubble bath — whatever activity washes out the annoyance and helps you feel good about yourself. “It’s easy to get down on yourself in situations with passive-aggressive coworkers,” says Dr. Borland. “Self-care is essential when you have a hostile work environment.”

6. Aim for empathy

It’s hard — REALLY hard — to give difficult colleagues the benefit of the doubt. But is there a valid reason they’re frustrated? “Try to see beyond the surface of their poor behavior. Peeling back some of the layers allows for empathy,” Dr. Borland says.

That doesn’t give your coworker the right to be a jerk. You deserve to be treated with respect. Still, finding understanding might lead to solutions that make life better for everyone.

And if all else fails? Cross your fingers for more of the silent treatment.

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