Confessions from a polite passive aggressive individual in the workplace.

I am working on a talk for the next HR Florida conference in August. It’s on how to deal with passive aggressive people so they don’t wreak havoc in the workplace.  In my mind, I was thinking of the bullies who control workflow by passive aggressively withholding information needed by others to get the work done.  I asked my friends and followers for input. One of them admitted he was passive aggressive at times and why.  He allowed me to share this in an article in the hopes that it would help managers understand their employee’s behaviors better so that people like my friend, don’t have to “scream” at you with their behavior. This just reconfirms my belief that when employees fail – it’s because their managers failed them. Keep that in mind when reading this.

(PS names have been changed to protect the innocent or not so innocent.)

Hi, my name is Joe (crowd: "hi Joe!") and I'm a hard core passive aggressive, not that any of you would care ("we feel your pain, Joe"). I've been a passive aggressive my entire life ("yeah, yeah, we know"), probably as a result of being raised in a very authoritarian household where overt defiance was an extremely bad choice ("ooh, yeah, confrontation sucks").
As a single data point, I can say that my passive aggressive comes out when I'm frustrated. At work this usually means that I'm frustrated with a policy or a boss that I think is screwed up but that I know I have no power to change, or else it's a situation where my time and effort have been committed to something by a boss where my input wasn't asked for or my assent was assumed - particularly when the activity in question is diverting me from my main purpose or goal in my job. Case in point: my district has a number of staff development days that are mandated. In past years, they took place during school days, so a substitute would be doing the job I love, badly, while I was off being walked through meetings full of jargon and buzzwords about teaching techniques that meant nothing to me. The crux of my frustration is that it feels like my district is deciding that we must have staff development (because that's what they're supposed to do), but they don't really know what they want us to learn, so they just throw stuff at us that doesn't seem to have relevance or a coherent plan behind it. So now I feel like I'm wasting time, _not_ getting my real job done, while some boss is checking off a box that they did their job to satisfy some boss above them. So I'm frustrated, and I show up with a big pile of personal work to do while fairly well ignoring the presenters that are spewing the jargon and buzzwords. Passive aggressive, big time. 
So in my case, in those instances, the solution is to give me a voice - give me some choice about whether I want to be involved in the dog and pony show, or would I rather get my real job done. My passive aggressive behavior is screaming at you that I'd rather be grading - and I hate grading - than be sitting in your meeting. If your meeting really is relevant and I'm behaving this way, then clearly I don't see the relevance - so perhaps the solution is to share the big picture with me and get my feedback about it. Maybe I don't sense that you, the boss, are really committed to the direction of this meeting or project or goal, and I think that any effort put into it is ultimately going to be wasted as the company shifts directions (again) and the old plan full of buzzwords is thrown out in favor of the new plan, full of new buzzwords. Regardless of what it is, I'm not being passive aggressive because I'm an a-hole, I'm doing it because I have a dissenting opinion that I don't believe I can openly express, so it's leaking out as passive aggressive behavior. Maybe we need to have a private meeting where my boss looks me straight in the eye, says "hey, this is all off the record, no repercussions - what's the matter?" If the boss and I can find common cause or make changes where my effort will be channeled into an activity I believe in, my passive aggressive will go away. Maybe I'm just a hard core introvert who wants to work in my cube, undisturbed, and you're throwing group activities at me left and right and it's putting my right out of my comfort zone. If we really cannot agree on a common path or a solution to my dissent, then perhaps I'm working in the wrong place. But I'd say that the number one thing passive aggressive people are looking for is the opportunity to have their voice heard and acted upon, probably in private, because if they felt comfortable enough bringing up their dissent in public, they'd have done it by now instead of being passive aggressive.
BTW - proud moment from my passive aggressive past: had a lab boss who could. not. run. a. meeting. She couldn't keep to a schedule or move a meeting along to save her life, so every time we had a meeting with her in charge there was no end in sight - it could drag on forever. So, I started taking a lab timer to our weekly lab meeting, setting it for 1 hour, and when it went off in the meeting I'd say "I have to go deal with my experiment" and leave. Was I running an experiment? Hell no. Half the time I'd go read email or something and then get back to work. My passive aggressive behavior was screaming "hey - keep yer damn meeting to an hour, would ya?", but she had no clue, and I was never going to say that out loud.

What lesson should you draw from this?  If you have an employee who is “not participating” the way you want – have a private conversation with them and LISTEN!  REALLY LISTEN. Give them a voice. Respect them. Employees aren’t robots. They are human beings. They deserve respect and if you treat them as a slave – you should expect them to behave in a passive aggressive way.

Learn how to avoid these mistakes with my online course: 7 Sins of Staff Management.

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