Frankly, I wasn’t expecting the answer I got…

Me: What’s a top challenge you face these days in your job?

Human Resource Director: Holding people accountable.

Me: What is the problem… not knowing how?

Human Resource Director:  No… (heavy sigh)… it’s passive-aggressiveness.


Imagine a beautiful sheep dog licking your face and peeing on you at the same time.


Have you heard the phrase, “the wolf in sheep’s clothing”? Someone who looks harmless (sheep) yet has sneaky, harmful intentions (wolf).

And the familiar…

Watching someone trip another person and act concerned by asking, “what’s the matter?” If you look, you see a slight smile… along with a smirk that says,”I gotcha!”… no one else smiles.

The upshot is that passive-aggressive behavior has an element of something hidden and/or just not feeling quite right. Negative feelings, resentments and anger get expressed in passive ways. That’s what makes passive-aggressiveness so hard to nail. You feel something isn’t right but get no validation.

At worst, passive aggressive behavior is a way we maim people… by withholding information and support that’s needed or in personal relationships, withholding love. It’s painful, creates confusion, impairs work productivity and destroys trust.

It’s  stressful  for the person on the giving and receiving side of passive-aggressive behavior. It’s maddening to be partnered with someone at work (or at home) you can’t trust to be honest, and open with you and take responsibility for their feelings.

And we all do it… we all display some passive-aggressive behaviors now and then. We can all be less than forthcoming when feeling fearful, angry or frustrated and avoid difficult conversations.

However, you can monitor and extinguish passive-aggressive behaviors and strive to express negative feelings openly and appropriately. After all, that’s how we all learn and get better.

In this article…

You will be given 3 keys to unlock the stress and reduce the madness surrounding passive-aggressive behaviors so you can develop greater ease with an honest expression of negative feelings.

Let’s turn the keys together…

Key #1– Recognize passive-aggressive behaviors.

At work, passive-aggressive behavior looks like…

  • doing work with a sullen attitude but when asked, denying anything is wrong
  • talking positively about someone in public and privately putting them down
  • agreeing to requests or to deliver on a project and then miss deadlines, forget or decide it isn’t important—giving an excuse or blaming the directions, or someone else; never taking responsibility
  • speaking softly so people have to strain to hear or pretending the question couldn’t be heard… or deliberately being slow to answer an email or text
  • sabotaging by saying nothing to a co-worker or a direct report about a changed deadline, a meeting they are missing or providing incomplete information/feedback on a program submitted
  • giving back-handed compliments… great presentation… too bad you followed that other great speaker…
  • responding so the other feels guilty… I wish I could afford to go on vacation… all my money goes to paying bills…
  • choosing to leave someone out … of a coffee run or a group lunch, knowing they would like to go
  • having a “victim” mindset and complaining about being treated unfairly yet refusing to speak up or get help speaking up
  • saying you’re okay with something when you know you’re definitely not okay

People are unaware of their passive-aggressive behaviors and how disruptive they are to others. Getting 360-degree feedback from co-workers, managers and peers, including executives can be eye-opening. Family and friends can give useful feedback too.

Do you see yourself in any of these descriptions? Are you up for sharing the list and listening to feedback… note the emphasis on listening!

Key #2– Understand how passive-aggressive behaviors develop.

Remember, you didn’t drop out of the sky fully developed. Growing up, you did your best to negotiate life’s challenges. Among those challenges were your caretakers– usually mom and dad who had the power to shape your environment (doing the best they know how to do).

When the environment you grow up in forbids any direct expression of disagreement or negativity, one way to manage and be your own person is to acquiesce and pretend to be agreeable. Your need to disagree or express anger doesn’t go away. Instead, you find ways to express them indirectly, avoiding direct conflict. Problem solving, being validated when expressing disagreement and learning to be a “good sport” when the other wins weren’t lessons practiced at home.

Pushing down thoughts, never speaking-up directly AND getting needs met indirectly becomes a way of life. Hostility towards authority, personal  insecurities around engaging others and conflict avoidance are common. What worked as a kid growing up isn’t working so great now… as an adult among other adults.

Learning more about the origins of passive-aggressive behaviors is helpful and while it explains the behavior it doesn’t excuse the behavior. Take action to change the passive-aggressive behavior.

Key #3– Do something with your awareness and make changes.

Whether you are the one who wants to work on your passive-aggressive behaviors or you are the leader/manager who is struggling to consistently get the best from an employee who seems to have passive-aggressive tendencies do this…

  • Acknowledge the disconnects between a willingness to deliver and the reality of missed deadlines and excuses so the facts are on the table. No need to pressure the person to accept them… but put them out there. Here’s how I would do it…

Jane, you sent me an email specifying your plan to complete x by today… when did you decide you couldn’t get it done… I didn’t get a call or an email about any delay. I would rather you say you can’t do something than agree and not do it.

  • Hire a coach with a background in psychotherapy who knows how to develop and use a transference. It’s helpful for a client with passive-aggressive tendencies to view the coach as an “authority” (the transference) since it’s the hostile relationship to authority both outside themselves and within they need to re-think. Here’s an example…

I just challenged you about making excuses Jane… you’re very quiet… I sense some anger… if not anger, what are you feeling?

(Even if Jane denies feeling angry, I’m putting it out there for her to consider. The beauty is that our consistent scheduled times together will help our relationship get stronger so she can build her capacity to engage authority, drop the hostility and share what she truly feels.)

  • Practice saying “no” and/or suggesting what works best for you rather than going along with the initial suggestions. Let others know you are trying on some new behaviors. If you have a coach, give her/him permission to “test” you and your passive-aggressive tendencies (e.g. saying you’ll do something or that you’re okay with something and then making excuses why it didn’t happen).

So Jane, why don’t we set it up so that you pay me $100 every time you fail to give anyone notice that you will be late?

(I did this and Jane quickly said “no.” Since then she is says “no” more often… and we can laugh. Good for her.)

  • Be accountable. By definition being accountable is agreeing to explain yourself. Wow. That’s what changing passive-aggressive behavior requires… a willingness to monitor actions completed and actions delayed. It takes courage to say yes to changing the familiar. It requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. Know that both people– you and the person you’re accountable to are working together… it can get maddening… but hey, no pain, no gain, right?
Of all the beautiful truths pertaining to the soul none is more gladdening or fruitful than to know you can regenerate and make yourself what you will.  — William James

Here’s your takeaway…

You can eliminate those passive-aggressive behaviors. For some of us, it’s a matter of increased self-awareness and tweaking those passive-aggressive tendencies as well as making peace with those emotional trappings from the past.

It may require some support from a coach with a therapy background.

It’s worth it… you’re worth it… and the people at home and work? They may need some help to realize you’re making changes to be more fabulous (because we human beings are slow to see changes).

No more maddening… it’s all gladdening!

So, be brave… let me know what you think!

Got more questions about this or other work-related-people-issues?

Contact me… let’s talk.