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What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior? & How to Cope With It

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Read Time: 13 min

When it comes to aggression, most of us can easily recognize direct aggression. But direct aggression is not the only type of aggressive behavior. Passive aggressive behavior is the other type of aggression that’s not immediately noticeable. 

Overworked man sitting at a deskOverworked man sitting at a deskOverworked man sitting at a desk
Passive aggressive behavior in the workplace can lead to stress for other employees. (Image source: Envato Elements)

But passive aggressive behavior can have a more lasting effect than direct aggression. Not to mention, it can be particularly harmful for the work environment.

But what is considered passive aggressive behavior? And how can you identify it? What is the best way for dealing with passive aggressive people? We’ll answer those questions and more in this guide. 

What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior? (Passive Aggressive Definition)

Have you ever been given a silent treatment? Or maybe you’ve received a compliment that didn’t really sound like a compliment at all? If you answered yes, you’ve been on the receiving end of passive aggressive behavior. 

Have you ever wondered "what is passive aggressive behavior?" According to Psychology Today, the definition is:

"Passive aggression is a way of expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, indirectly instead of directly. Passive-aggressive behaviors are often difficult to identify and can sabotage relationships at home and at work."

People who engage in passive aggressive behavior express their emotions harmfully but indirectly. Their anger is cloaked and hidden. In essence, they avoid confrontation, but the negative connotation and emotion is there. 

Passive aggressive behavior is a serious enough problem that the American Psychological Association (APA) has classified it as a personality disorder:

"...a personality disorder of long standing in which ambivalence toward the self and others is expressed by such means as procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, “forgetting” appointments, or misplacing important materials. These maneuvers are interpreted as passive expressions of underlying negativism."

Passive aggressive behavior sends mixed signals. If you’re on the receiving end of it, it can lead to confusion, frustration, and emotional distrust.

What Is Behind Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Passive Aggressive Behavior RootsPassive Aggressive Behavior RootsPassive Aggressive Behavior Roots
Passive aggressive behavior is sometimes difficult to identify. (Image source: Envato Elements)

If you've ever faced someone who is acting in a passive aggressive fashion, you might wonder why anyone would ever act like that. Why are people passive aggressive?

Anger and the inability to express negative feelings as it the root of it. That inability to express one's self may result from one or more of the following:

  • difficulty expressing emotion
  • fear of what will happen if they express negative feelings
  • disrupted relationships with authority figures as a child
  • a need to control 
  • not having the tools to be assertive
  • receiving punishment for negative expressions as a child
  • depression
  • growing up in an abusive environment

And those are just a few of the possible causes of why someone might behave in a passive aggressive fashion. There are many other reasons that could cause it as well.

10 Examples to Help You Recognize Passive Aggressive Behavior 

Do you recognize passive aggressive behavior when you see it? You may think that you know what passive aggressive behavior is, but it often expresses itself in ways that you may not recognize.

Here are ten passive aggressive examples of behavior so you can identify it and then take appropriate steps to handle it.

1. Backhanded Compliments

“I’m not really sure green is your color but that’s a nice dress.”

Your dress is great — I wore the same one last summer!”

At first glance, these statements might seem like compliments.

But if you look closer, you’ll notice that they are actually insults in disguise. An easy way to tell if the compliment is genuine is to examine how it makes you feel.  A backhanded compliment pairs a seeming compliment with an insult.

If you’re compelled to say, “Thanks…. I guess?” The compliment is more than likely passive aggressive behavior.

For more information on backhanded compliments, review the tutorial below:

2. "Forgetting" an Important Meeting or Deadline

Missed DeadlineMissed DeadlineMissed Deadline
A pattern of missed deadlines or meetings could be passive aggressive behavior. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Do you know someone who always turns in their work late or forgets to show up to important meetings? You could be dealing with passive aggressive behavior.

It's normal to sometimes miss a meeting or be late on a deadline. But if it happens all the time, that's a sign of trouble.

If you find yourself working with someone like this, clearly communicate that meetings and deadlines are important. If you're managing an employee like this, let them know that their actions affect the team. Offer to help with any problems they're having but set a timeline for improvement.

3. Sarcastic Comments

Sarcasm can often be seen as veiled hostility so it’s no wonder that sarcastic comments are a good example of passive aggressive behavior. 

For example, let’s say you forgot your coworker’s birthday. The next time they see you, they might say something along the lines:

“Thanks for my birthday card, it was great!” 

By doing so, they’re avoiding confrontation while at the same time conveying their anger or disappointment. 

4. Patronizing or Condescending Behavior

When some people feel threatened, they often try to make themselves seem or feel superior. You can usually recognize this type of behavior when they use pet names such as “kid,” “junior,“temp,” “honey,” “sugar,” or similar. 

They might also try to explain something to you and follow it up with

“Is that clear enough for you?” Do you understand what I mean?”

This type of behavior is never acceptable, especially in a work environment. If you've got an employee who acts in this fashion, make it clear that this is not acceptable. 

5. Pretending to Agree

Let’s say that you’re working on a project with a group of people. Everybody presents their ideas, and the best idea gets picked as the one the entire team will be moving forward with. Everyone seems happy with it. 

Two people shaking hands in the workplace.Two people shaking hands in the workplace.Two people shaking hands in the workplace.
Pretending to agree is toxic to the work environment. (Image source: Envato Elements

But a few days later, you find that one of the team members is sulking. It turns out they don’t like the idea at all, even though initially they agreed with it. 

Pretending to agree is another form of passive aggressive behavior that’s typically used to avoid conflict. 

6. Not Taking Responsibility for Action

Admitting guilt and taking responsibility is never easy. But it does show that we are responsible, mature adults. If you know someone that always deflects blame and points the finger at someone else, you’re dealing with passive aggressiveness. 

In this case, people who deflect often play the victim and have difficulties acknowledging their own faults. They also tend to hold grudges for long periods of time, often years and can be pretty unforgiving. 

7. Negative Body Language

A passive aggressive person may not say or do anything aggressive. But their body language communicates their aggression. Body language that signals a passive aggressive attitude includes:

  • eye rolling
  • crossed arms
  • a look of scorn
  • avoiding eye contact
  • slumped posture

For more information on understanding body language, study this tutorial:

8. Refusing to Communicate

A passive aggressive person may refuse to answer or even walk away from a conversation. In severe cases, they may act as though the other person is not present.

This refusal to communicate is often called the silent treatment. It can be particularly harmful if it is used as means to control or punish another person.

9. Secretly Sabotaging 

People who resort to passive aggressive behavior might sometimes work behind the scenes to sabotage another person’s project, reputation or other aspects of their life. 

They might hide their tracks and cover up their actions to avoid being caught. They might spread rumors but make it appear as if they heard it from someone else. This type of passive aggressive behavior is rooted in personal insecurities. 

10. Not Following Through 

Let’s say you have a big deadline approaching and you’re swamped with work. You ask your coworker to crunch the numbers you need to prepare a report you need to complete the project. 

If your coworker doesn’t say anything but also doesn’t do anything to help with the project report, you’re dealing with passive aggressive behavior. This is a form of non-compliance. It can also manifest itself as procrastinating on purpose to avoid a task or a commitment.

Unchecked Passive Aggressive Behavior Leads to a Less Healthy Workplace 

As you can see, passive aggressive behavior is extremely negative. It can have serious consequences that affect both the morale in the office but also the mental well-being of your coworkers. 

People arguing in the workplacePeople arguing in the workplacePeople arguing in the workplace
Passive aggressive behavior can lead to a negative work environment. (Image source: Envato Elements)

If someone engages in passive aggressive behavior, your team might be missing deadlines regularly. Projects might be derailed because someone is sabotaging progress behind the scenes or not doing their share of the work. 

This can lead to a decrease in productivity and create a negative atmosphere full of resentment. Plus, it can also weaken the relationships between team members. Learn how to build positive team relationships here:

8 Strategies for Dealing With Passive Aggressive Behavior

Now you know how to identify passive aggressive behavior. You also understand how it can negatively impact the workplace. That’s why you need to deal with passive aggressive behavior as soon as possible. The following eight strategies will be helpful. 

1. Identify the Behavior 

The first step in dealing with passive aggressive behavior is to recognize and identify the behavior. Since passive aggressive behaviors are often subtle, this can be challenging. But you can use the passive aggressive examples mentioned above to help you quickly recognize the harmful patterns before they escalate further. 

2. Find the Root Cause 

Passive aggressive behavior doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is usually a root cause for the behavior. Don’t be afraid to probe and ask questions to find what is causing them to react and engage in passive aggressiveness. 

For example, a team member might feel they’ve deserved a raise but got passed over in favor of another employee. Show them you understand how they feel and try to find a way to rectify the situation.

3. Provide Training or Counseling

As mentioned earlier, passive aggressive behavior stems from deeply rooted insecurities or inability to communicate in an assertive manner. It can also be a learned behavior.

Consider providing training, coaching or access to counseling to help your team members learn to express their needs, wishes, and opinions in a more confident and constructive manner. 

4. Create a Safe Environment 

When dealing with someone who engages in passive aggressive behavior, remember that this is their way of coping with their own insecurities or fear of confrontation and anger. Always talk to them in private. Let them know it’s safe to come talk to you about their concerns instead of bottling them up inside. 

People talking and laughing in the workplacePeople talking and laughing in the workplacePeople talking and laughing in the workplace
 Encourage open communication in the workplace. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Let them know that they can voice their concerns in email or through a phone call or by talking to you. In other words, keep the lines of the communication open in any way that feels comfortable for them. 

5. Voice Your Concerns Respectfully and Carefully 

Avoid using language that might be perceived as an attack. For example, instead of saying

“You didn’t turn in your report on time.”

try saying

“I noticed that the report was late.” 

Provide specific examples and times when an event occurred. Give them an opportunity to explain what happened. Use first-person pronouns and explain the impact their behavior has on the entire team. 

Also, remember to stay calm and composed, no matter how upsetting the situation might be. Rather than getting the person to stop, emotional reactions are likely to cause more passive aggressive behaviors. 

6. Set Clear Consequences 

It’s important to set clear boundaries and outline the consequences for keeping up with passive aggressive behavior. 

For example, your team member might initially deflect what you’re saying by trying to shift the blame onto you or other members of the team. If that happens, continue reiterating what is expected of them. Remember to hold them accountable. 

Be sure to also explain what the consequences are for going against the rules and explain that negative behavior won’t be tolerated.

Create a written record of what's been discussed, including expectations, standards, and consequences. You can also create a performance agreement that will be regularly reviewed. This makes it difficult for the team member in question to claim they didn’t know what’s expected of them.

7. Avoid a Power Struggle

Avoid Power StrugglesAvoid Power StrugglesAvoid Power Struggles
Don't let a passive aggressive person turn a situation turn into a power struggle. (Image source: Envato Elements)

If the behavior is not dealt with, a  passive aggressive person may try to manipulate the situation so that they "win."  But the truth is that no one wins with passive aggressive behavior.

Make sure that all expectations are clearly stated. And make sure the consequences of not meeting an expectation are also easy to understand. Whenever possible, frame situations as win-win rather than win-lose.

8. Remember That It's Not About You

If someone is acting in a passive aggressive manor, it's almost never about you. Although their behavior may feel personal, it's not. Rather, it's a result of the other person's fear and anger and their inability to express those feelings.

Don't let the other person's treatment of you affect how you feel about yourself or how you live your day to day life.

If the situation is happening at work, you may need to involve a manager or human resources. As mentioned above, document all instances of passive aggression to create a record. 

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Minimize Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

You've just learned a passive aggressive definition. You've also been given some passive aggressive examples and tips for dealing with passive aggressive people. 

As you've discovered, there are many reasons for why a person chooses to behave in a passive aggressive way. Low self-esteem and fear of confrontation are just a couple of underlying causes for passive aggression which can have a negative impact on the company culture and environment as a whole. 

We’ve shared some tips to help you identify as well as cope with passive aggressive behavior. The only thing left to do now is to use them. 

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in February 2022. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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