Summary: If you’ve dealt with passive-aggressive behavior before, you know first-hand how that feels. There are certain steps you can take to help prevent being in that situation again. Additionally, you can look at someone’s behavior though a different lens and understand that it’s an issue with the other party more so than about you. Review these tips to see how understanding and communication can produce different outcomes in the future.
Passive aggressive behavior shows up in the workplace when someone feels unhappy but is also unwilling to engage in direct or productive conflict. Instead of communicating their concerns, they may become overly sarcastic, gossip, and hinder their performance and those around them. Chances are that you’ve dealt with passive-aggressive behavior before and know how difficult it can be to handle, especially within a professional setting. Here are some tips on what you can do if a coworker has started treating you in a passive-aggressive way.
Understand that It’s Not About You
Your coworker may be upset with a decision you made or a situation you’re in, but their behavior reflects their poor coping and communication skills. If you begin to take their actions personally, it will make matters worse because you will be less capable of handling the situation professionally.
Understanding that the issue is about their behavior can help make you curious instead of defensive and brings us to the next tip.
Try to See Their Reasons
While their behavior isn’t excusable, it often hints at something else. Not many people choose to be difficult for fun. What could be causing your coworker to act out this way? Could it be that they are struggling with something personal, and it’s impacting how they relate with others? Is there an issue in the workplace that makes them feel that they cannot safely share their discomfort directly?
Since they have not chosen the best path toward being heard, you may want to consider a better way for you to listen.
Speak with Them Directly
Many people avoid this option because it can feel like escalating a conflict. But the truth is, reciprocating the poor behavior is what escalates it. Ignoring it guarantees that you will never resolve both the problem causing their behavior and the problem of the behavior itself. If you’re feeling hesitant here- consider that your coworker may have felt the same way and went with a poor method of communication instead.
How you speak with them can also affect the outcome. For example, if you approach them with an accusatory tone and aren’t willing to create an open space for dialogue about how they are feeling and why they are behaving that way, they will stay angry.
Don’t fall into the trap of letting the passive-aggressive mood affect how you communicate. Instead, show leadership skills by remaining open and straightforward in communicating expectations and taking the initiative by speaking with them about the matter.
Include specific examples of their behavior- not as evidence in a trial against them, but as symptoms of a problem you want to solve. This might look like:
“I feel that you’ve been pretty curt with me after last Wednesday. Is there something on your mind we can work out together, or am I misreading the situation? I know things got pretty intense with this new initiative, but I don’t want you to think I don’t value your input even if we don’t see eye to eye.”
Take care to actually listen to them, even if it’s not something you agree with. You may learn something from a perspective you hadn’t considered. However, even if things are set in stone, you can still emphasize that everyone should be heard (and if you’re in a position to act on those ideas, keep note of them when building future projects and initiatives).
Empathy is crucial, but that doesn’t mean you need to give in to any demands they have or reward their behavior. It’s essential to remain curious about how you can strengthen your relationship and work, but you need to keep this next tip in mind.
Set Firm Boundaries
Just because you empathize with your coworker does not mean you need to allow them to treat you poorly. Remember- you can’t control their behavior. You can only control how you react to it.
Communicate your boundaries clearly and with no wiggle room. Examples include, “I understand you are busy, but if you are late for the meeting again, we will have to start without you.” Or “You haven’t sent the deliverables I asked for again. Please send them when asked, or I will have to talk with the supervisor about better workflow options.”
In the end, if open communication can’t help you mediate the situation on your own, it may be time to bring in a supervisor who can. However, unless your coworker has been harassing you, try coming to your supervisor out of concern rather than complaint. Let them know the steps you’ve taken and what hasn’t worked and see what they have to say about the matter. Again, taking care of yourself and maintaining your boundaries is essential.
If you are having issues with your supervisor, that’s a different situation. In that scenario, contact your local campus Steward for advisement.