Characteristics of a Passive-Aggressive Employee:
The passive-aggressive employee is often angry, but they express their anger in indirect ways, which can be confusing and even infuriating. Whilst this personality type does not necessarily have a specific look, rather it is identified through actions or behaviours employed in daily interpersonal communication and work.
A passive-aggressive employee’s indirect resentment can drain the energy of a whole workforce. The result on morale, teamwork, communication and results can be devastating.
Passive-aggressive employees can be categorized into various types:
The Behind the Scenes Grumbler: When given a task, a passive-aggressive employee constantly complains about not being respected for the work they do yet to the boss, the individual will display signs of courteous agreement with an undertone of disapproval.
The Perplexed Pretender: When requested to assume responsibility for a task, this person feigns misinterpretation in an attempt to perform less whilst provoking management.
The Counter Compliant: In being asked to perform a duty, this employee purposely falls just short of compliance, but only to a point that complaining about it seems inconsequential. The individual, with quiet contempt, takes action toward finishing the request, but in the process forces another party to handle the last 10 percent.
The Intentional Inefficient: Being aware that ultimate responsibility for productivity and efficiency falls upon the shoulders of a fellow team member, this employee takes steps to diminish the end result. The employee spins the failure to successfully complete the task, as though it is due to their hardworking nature and that someone else failed.
The Convenient Contributor: This employee does as little as possible when the boss is around, but as soon as the superior is unavailable, they think of a task that requires authorisation, and because their direct manager is not available it is necessary to go to the next level of management for approval. Potential claims from the direct management about lack of performance lose credibility and make them seem unappreciative of the employee in question.
The Well-Timed White Knight: Always wanting to save the day with an office problem, this individual waits until the boss is out of the office to create a crisis. The employee then steps in and goes over the boss’ head, seeking out a manager in order to gain approval for necessary actions.
The Prolonged Performer: This employee is willing and able to undertake a project but takes so long to complete it that the task-giver regrets asking in the first place.
Barriers to Overcome with a Passive-Aggressive Employee:
Confusing Communication: Passive-aggressive employees might say one thing, like “Sounds great!”, but mean quite another, which can often be perplexing and bewildering.
Mixed Messages: It’s difficult to be confident in a passive-aggressive individual’s apparent agreement as a commitment: “I said I would handle the project, didn’t I?” On some level, you may sense there’s a possibility that the employee will not do what was “agreed”, or that it will be done with resentment.
Fighting Fire with Fire: As passive-aggressive people are angry to begin with, an employee in question is likely to meet anger with even greater disrespect. It may be difficult but getting angry or being sarcastic in return will escalate the situation.
Objectives to Introduce when Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Employee:
Address the Issue Head On
It is very important to be clear about any passive-aggressive behaviour you have observed in the workplace by scheduling a meeting with the employee in question. Document specific incidents so you can talk in detail about when it happened and how it affected the team. Facts are essential in managing employee behaviour, and repetitive and toxic actions should be addressed.
Don’t Mirror the Anger
Once you have acknowledged the employee's behaviour as passive-aggressive, it is crucial to stay calm and collected when dealing with the situation. While this can be difficult, reacting emotionally will only make the situation worse. Stick to the facts and keep calm - being responsible for your own behaviour and responses is the best line of defence.
Ask about the Anger
Calling an employee out on their passive-aggressive behaviour can be very successful. By stating that the individual seems rather angry and suggesting having a chat about the reasons why, you approach the situation in a calm and controlled manner. Passive-aggressive people work hard to mask their deep rooted anger, so dealing with it in an empathetic manner is an effective technique for a manager.
Understand that You Can’t Change a Passive-Aggressive Employee
The actions of a passive-aggressive person are complex, and their behaviour is often a way of coping with stress, anxieties and insecurities. Whilst confronting them is a step forward in dealing with the issue, there is no guarantee the employee will accept and understand your opinions. Only when they become self-aware in understanding their own thoughts and actions can the person change.
When dealing with a passive-aggressive employee, it is more beneficial to focus on what you can do to improve the situation rather than try to change their attitude. Negative workplace behaviours such as passive aggression, bullying or sociopathic tendencies will all become problematic if managers allow individual behaviour to become more important than the team.
Focus on Your Team
As previously stated, having a passive-aggressive employee in your company can be extremely stressful and disastrous not only for you but for your business, as negative attitudes and behaviour tend to be contagious. To try and reduce the risk of passive-aggressive attitudes forming, adopt a culture of open communication and constructive feedback in the workplace. As a manager, be authentic, be consistent, be compassionate and check in with team members regularly. When these strategies are in place, behaviours like passive-aggression are silenced and don't have room to propagate.
The contents of this article are necessarily expressed in broad terms and limited to general information rather than detailed analyses or legal advice. Specialist professional advice should always be obtained to address legal and other issues arising in specific contexts.