Passive-Aggressive Communication

How Would You Define Passive-Aggressive Communication? – By Violet Dhu

Passive-aggressive communication is aggression in another form. Whereas aggressive communicators tend to be quite direct in their behaviour, passive-aggressive communicators will not be honest and open. Passive-aggressive communicators often use underhand and manipulative tactics to get what they want. These tactics can include:

  • Appearing to agree to something but not doing what was asked, or not doing it correctly
  • Indirect criticism; e.g. backhanded compliments
  • Sarcasm or inappropriate humour
  • Criticising people behind their backs
  • Agreeing to do something then continually complaining
  • Gossiping
  • Being disinterested and not willing to engage
  • Missing deadlines
  • Withholding full information
  • Arrives late
  • Doesn’t respond to emails
  • Isolating or excluding people

People use passive-aggressive behaviour because they are resentful about something, but, for whatever reasons, they are unable or unwilling to express this anger honestly. They will deliberately try to mask their anger; for example, by smiling. If we drill down behind the passive aggressive behaviour we will find a mask for anger.

One of the main reasons why workers and managers resort to passive aggressive behaviour is because they are fearful of dealing with conflict. They don’t know how to be vulnerable and express their frustration and their feelings of anger honestly and respectfully. People are often uncomfortable with being honest and speaking their truth. There is also the fear of retribution. So, they hide their anger and it is played out in the different forms of passive aggressive behaviour.

We have been socialised into hiding our anger from early childhood. Children learn to suppress their feelings of anger. We need to teach our children to accept that anger is a normal part of life and that it is ok to express their anger in a way that is not destructive to them or others.

Why do workers/managers use this kind of communication in the workplace?
Passive-aggressive behaviour is on the increase in our workplaces. Employees generally know that aggressive behaviour is not to be tolerated in workplaces. Employees are made aware of the anti-bullying policies and their codes of conduct. Aggressive behaviour is overt; therefore, the behaviour is more likely to be seen or heard by others in the workplace. Aggressive behaviour is observable and much easier to document and make a complaint about. Whereas passive aggressive behaviour is covert, sneaky and underhanded and a lot more difficult to describe and document.

People often say they would much rather have to deal with someone who is aggressive than someone who is passive aggressive. It is difficult to hold people who are passive aggressive accountable because of the sneaky covert approach.

Jody Long, Nicholas Long and Signe Whitson in The Angry Smile describes 5 levels of passive aggressive behaviour.

Level 1. The person who verbally agrees but behaviourally delays.
This is the most common form of passive aggressive behaviour and the one that people get away with the most. A typical example would be when a supervisor asks their employee for a report to be completed urgently. The employee says yes to the request because they don’t have the skills to negotiate and say no. They say yes with a smile while feeling angry and resentful. They then act this out by smiling while putting the report at the bottom of the pile.

Level 2. The individual complies with the request but delivers it in an unacceptable way.
A typical workplace example: A Director of a major project constantly reminds his team of the need to keep on time and budget. This constant interference frustrates the lead project manager and they act out their anger by deliberately taking sick leave to delay the project.

The impact of this approach is that the Director then gets frustrated and takes on the project themselves. The relationship between the Director and the lead project manager then becomes strained and this in turn impacts on the team’s morale and if not addressed results in employee disengagement.

Level 3. The Individual deliberately allow the problem to escalate.
The passive aggressive person will choose to do nothing about a problem that they could have corrected or prevented. They will withhold information or deliberately avoid speaking up about a problem. A typical example in the workplace could be when an employee working in a factory setting can see that a machine is faulty and deliberately chooses to ignore the signs which results in a break down which costs the company time and money. The passive aggressive person then takes delight in saying I didn’t notice anything.

Level 4. The individual consciously and sneakily seeks revenge.
Often the person feels justified in acting out the passive aggressive behaviour because they feel they have been mistreated, unappreciated or overlooked. They will seek revenge covertly because they don’t have the skills to address the issues directly.

Revenge seekers often isolate or exclude people from social or work interactions. A typical example could be when a supervisor is upset with an employee because they asked some difficult questions about the project. The supervisor interpreted the questioning as a sign of dissent and feels embarrassed and is annoyed and angry at the employee. Rather than say anything after the meeting they set up a working party and exclude the employee from participating.

Level 5. Self-depreciation
This form of passive aggressive behaviour is more extreme and more likely to impact on the individual who is acting out the passive aggressive behaviour. An example of self-deprecation could be when a highly regarded executive has an angry outburst in a meeting in front of the directors and the key stakeholders. The impact will be felt by the individual executive in that it will impact on his/her career and their reputation.

In summary passive aggressive behaviour is covert and sneaky making it difficult to recognise. This in turn makes the behaviour difficult to manage. The key is not to react to the passive aggressive behaviour but be proactive. This takes a high level of emotional intelligence and of course self-awareness and self-control.

Here are a few practical steps to help change your response to passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace.

  1. Identify what the different levels of passive aggressive behaviour are.
  2. Seek to understand why people engage in passive aggressive behaviour
  3. Develop your own self-awareness around recognising the warning signs of passive aggressive behaviour
  4. Recognise and acknowledge our own angry feelings
  5. Stay calm and avoid getting hooked by the behaviour
  6. Acknowledge that you have a choice in how you respond to the other person behaviour and the importance of modelling assertive communication.

The Angry Smile by Jody E Long, Nicholas J. Long & Signe Whitson

If you would like to learn more about assertive communication and passive-aggressive behaviour, Violet has an  upcoming workshop on Assertive Communication Skills.

Comments 2

  1. Thank you. This article (on passive/aggressive communication) is an objective summary of this behaviour type with some helpful hints on identifying it and dealing with it. These are especially useful in this area of concern because P/A communicators can so often bamboozle the recipient(s) of their behaviour simply because it is aggression in disguise – and the recipient may well not expect to be receiving this aggressive behaviour and may even sub-conciously try to brush it off…..

    1. Post

      Thank you, Mark, I totally agree with your comment on how the passive aggressive communicators can so often bamboozle the recipient(s) of their behaviour simply because it is aggression in disguise – and the recipient may well not expect to be receiving this aggressive behaviour and may even sub-consciously try to brush it off…..

      Dealing with passive-aggressive communicators is tricky and the key is not to react and to stay calm. The last thing we need to do is respond passive-aggressively back and as you rightly said this can be an unconscious response. Thanks for your comments

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