Under the right set of circumstances, just about anyone could be drawn to procrastinate, argue, criticize or feel as if she's a victim of injustice. For passive-aggressive personalities, however, this is a well-ingrained habit and daily ritual that can make everyone around them feel uncomfortable and reluctant to trust. In the workplace, employees with this toxic attitude affect morale, impede productivity and undermine the authority of management.
Passive-aggressive behaviors can originate in childhood and adolescence as a result of unhealthy family environments involving divorce, violence or substance abuse, the forced suppression of emotions and competition with siblings and playmates. According to the authors of "The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces," individuals who learn early that mind-games, defiance, accusations and acting out their hostilities are a way to get attention and control the actions of others are more likely to carry these perceptions into adulthood.
Passive-aggressive employees have a tendency to question, criticize and belittle the motives of their coworkers and bosses, gossip incessantly to create a divisive workplace, make excuses and lay blame for incomplete assignments and become sullen or angry when their demands are not met. Passive-aggressive workers are highly vocal in their resentful feelings toward anyone they regard as a competitor, as well as eager to invoke sympathy for their own losses, real or imagined.
Engaging in arguments with passive-aggressive coworkers or planning retaliations to get them fired are among the worst coping strategies, according to the authors of "Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job." Calm dialogues, walking away from escalating confrontations and limiting personal contact with these individuals are more effective. Don't bail them out when they fail or make excuses that only reinforce their aggression. Develop backup plans to protect the company's reputation. Supervisors and HR representatives must be brought into the loop if hostilities persist or increase, especially if there is any reason to suspect that the worker could cause physical harm to himself or others.
Personality disorders such as passive-aggressive behavior are hard to self-heal because affected individuals tend to believe it's everyone else who has a problem. Counseling sessions with a trained therapist work to identify the underlying causes of insecurities, fears and anger, acknowledge and express emotions in a healthy way, recognize situations that trigger hostile reactions, respect the boundaries of others and promote positive thinking. Group therapy sessions might be recommended for engaging in role-playing exercises. In some cases, medications such as antidepressants may be prescribed to manage feelings of agitation and nervousness.
- "Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job"; Alan A. Cavaiola, et al.; 2000
- "Blindsided -- Recognizing and Dealing With Passive-Aggressive Leadership in the Workplace"; Paula M. DeAngelis; 2008
- "A Survival Guide to Managing Employees From Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers and Other Workplace Demons"; Gini Graham Scott; 2006
- "The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces"; Nicholas James Long, et al.; 2008
Ghostwriter and film consultant Christina Hamlett has written professionally since 1970. Her credits include many books, plays, optioned features, articles and interviews. Publishers include HarperCollins, Michael Wiese Productions, "PLAYS," "Writer's Digest" and "The Writer." She holds a B.A. in communications (emphasis on audience analysis and message design) from California State University, Sacramento. She also travels extensively and is a gourmet chef.