8 Ways to Deal With Passive-Aggressive Employees

Do you have any employees who seem to be hiding a deep-seated anger? These 8 strategies can help you understand and manage the passive-aggressive people on your staff.
October 13, 2014

If you’ve ever come across an employee who's unreasonable, hostile and hard to communicate with, you just might find you have a passive-aggressive worker on your hands.

Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, defines passive aggression as "a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden or covert feelings of anger." These type of people act out in ways that are meant to sabotage others.

While other employees may choose to keep their distance, as your business's leader, you need to confront this situation head on. By not doing so, passive-aggressive employees can sabotage the culture of your office with their underlying anger.

But confronting a passive-aggressive person can be tricky since they are, by nature, non-confrontational, says Zeynep Ivet Bandirma, an organizational psychologist and leadership development coach. Instead of openly discussing issues that may be bothering them, they may instead make inappropriate remarks or mumble under their breath, which makes it extremely uncomfortable for others to be around.

You must put a stop to this immediately if you don't want them dragging your business down with them. Here are three steps Bandirma suggests you take as quickly as possible.

1. Address the Issue Head On

When you do this, you need to be very clear about the passive-aggressive behavior you've observed. Be sure to carefully document specific incidents so you can bring them up to your employee.

"Facts are very important in the workplace, and behaviors that are repetitive and toxic should be addressed and brought to light," Bandirma says. "I always tell my clients to be very attuned to their own gut feelings about situations and dynamics in the workplace. If it feels 'off' and the behavior seems odd, then it probably is."

2. Control Your Own Emotions and Anger

Once you've recognized the employee's behavior as passive aggressive, you need to stay calm and collected when dealing with the situation. While this can be difficult, Bandirma says that reacting emotionally will only make the situation worse. The passive-aggressive employee will shut down and may even harbor deeper, angry feelings toward you.

“Remain calm and clear and keep the facts straight,” Bandirma advises. “It's very easy to become confused when pulling apart the facts in an incident.”

3. Understand That You Can’t Change a Passive-Aggressive Person

The actions of a passive-aggressive person are complex—their behavioral patterns are often deeply rooted and a way of coping with stress, anxieties and insecurities. So while confronting them is a step in the right direction, there's no guarantee the person will accept and digest what you’re trying to get across. Only when they become self-aware or mature in understanding their own thoughts and actions can the person change.

When dealing with a passive-aggressive employee, your best bet is to focus on what you can do to improve the situation rather than try to change their attitude.

“These workplace behaviors—passive aggression, bullying, sociopathic tendencies—will all become problematic if leaders allow the behaviors of individuals to become more important than the team,” Bandirma says. “It's really important to foster a culture of open communication and constructive feedback in the workplace. When this happens, behaviors like [passive aggression] are quieted and don't have room to proliferate.”

To stop passive-aggressive behavior from spreading to the rest of your team, try implementing these five strategies that Bandirma suggests for business leaders:

1. Be authentic. “When leaders are authentic in what they say and do, and act with sincerity, their team members are more receptive to engaging in active communication,” Bandirma says. This means cultivating a transparent environment where workers don’t feel as if they have to watch their backs.

“When people feel as if they have to watch their backs," Bandirma notes, "that's when behaviors like passive aggression and bullying begin to occur.”

2. Be consistent. As your business's leader, it's your job to consistently foster the organizational culture you want through your words and actions. “If you say you're going to do something, do it,” Bandirma says. “If you promise a training for your staff or a staff retreat, follow through. The last thing you want is for your team to begin to make up stories in their heads and to perpetuate the idea that things will always stay the same.”

If you're consistent and follow through, your team will learn to trust you and won’t feel the need to look to their co-workers for explanations of “hidden agendas.”

3. Foster feedback and communication. The most important tool you have to run a successful company is open and effective communication. If you don’t have this, problems will come at you from all angles and, seemingly, from nowhere. But if you’re able to foster feedback and healthy communication with your employees, you'll encourage them to come to you as soon as problems arise.

“[This] doesn't only mean that you're clear about the expectations of the team and the individuals but also about how things are working,” Bandirma says. “You have to allow for a safe space for your team to discuss issues. Make it a habit to implement activities like after action reviews after each project, for example, so your team becomes accustomed to looking at projects, activities and tasks with a critical eye in an effort to make the next round better. And ask everyone to participate.”

4. Be compassionate. Managers need to build strong, effective relationships with their employees. These shouldn't be thought of as friendships but more so as partnerships.

“This is something difficult to balance because when there are individuals with passive-aggressive tendencies, if you appear to befriend one of your team members more than another, you'll probably be perceived as showing favoritism.”

When you speak with your employees, make sure to spend equal amounts of time with them, show compassion and don't forget to be human. “Showing compassion—not just empathizing—will really move you from 'manager' to 'leader,' ” she says. “Human beings are instinctive about leadership, and they do like to follow; showing your compassion for them, as your staff, and for others is important.”

5. Check in regularly. Relationships can't be built from a single conversation, so you need to make sure you’re continually checking in with your employees to see how things are going. Be sure you're not micromanaging them when you check in, however. What you're striving to do is open the lines of communication so your team understands they can rely on you when they’ve hit a roadblock, Bandirma says.

Having a passive-aggressive employee in your company can be extremely stressful and disastrous not only for you but for your business—negative attitudes and behaviors tend to be contagious. If you find you have a passive-aggressive employee on your staff and want to try to make it work, focusing on your own actions to build trust and communication with your team will go far to stop passive aggression in its tracks.

Read more articles on managing employees.

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