Stopping Difficult Coworker Behavior

Elizabeth Cipolla

Passive aggressive behavior in the workplace can undoubtedly be one of the trickiest to deal with. People who behave this way do so because it is more convenient that a direct conversation, and involves less skill than being assertive. There are many different types of passive aggressive behavior, but all of it has one thread of commonality. It allows the person to exact revenge from the safe distance of plausible excuses for their behavior and is laden with hidden hostility.

When you’re dealing with someone who behaves this way, it can be even more destructive than outright aggression, because it leaves you feeling nauseatingly confused throughout the roller coaster ride of dysfunctional behavior aimed in your direction. Passive aggressive people thrive upon getting back at you without you even knowing it. They may use phrases such as, “Fine”, “Whatever”, “I’m not mad”, “I was just kidding”, or “Why are you getting so upset?” If you’re nodding your head in agreement while reading this article because it sounds eerily familiar, it’s time to regain power over what you can control. Don’t let their psychoemotional limitations dictate the way you feel or behave. Instead, find ways to nurture your own emotional and psychological health.

Maybe you have a co-worker who seems to thrive on gossip, sabotage, sarcastic remarks, and planting seeds of doubt into the minds of others. Or, perhaps you have a boss who discretely pits employees against one another, or gives you the cold shoulder if they feel you’ve wronged them. There isn’t a workplace that is immune to this destructive interpersonal group dynamic. In truth, whenever you have a group of people working together, there is a likelihood of experiencing this type of damaging behavior at some point.

The business and emotional consequences of this behavior are real. In extreme cases, some organizations have gone under entirely. Virtually every organization wastes exorbitant amounts of money on lost productivity or turnover from passive aggressive behavior that is allowed to spread. Those who suffer at the hands of a sabotaging peer or boss experience stress related health problems, loss of confidence, an unfair loss of reputation and a decreased ability to be productive.

It is possible to put an end to this toxic behavior before it spirals out of control. It all starts with forcing a sense of personal accountability onto the offenders. Whether you are in management, or a frustrated co-worker, there are things you can do to stop a destructive employee in their tracks.

¯ Change your behavior.

Don’t allow yourself to be controlled or directed anymore. If you’ve made a decision that someone is trying to put a destructive spin upon, stick with it. Don’t act in a way that makes it ok for others to treat you poorly. If someone tries to give you a subtle insult, challenge it by saying, “That sounded like a dig at me. Was it?”

¯ Don’t encourage their behavior.

Although this sounds simple, it can be difficult to do. If someone makes a rude or offensive comment, don’t laugh it off or stay silent. Instead, directly ask them to “explain what they’re trying to say.” If someone tries to involve you in office gossip or backstabbing, remove yourself from the situation by telling them you’d “rather not speculate.” Walk away.

¯ Don’t allow them to hide behind technology.

Many office bullies have mastered the art of firing off an insulting email to spread intimidation. The next time you receive such a message, reply by walking over to their cubicle or pick up the phone. Confidently explain that you’d “prefer to discuss their issue in person.” Matter of factly ask them what time works best to meet.

¯ Don’t let them scare you away from asking questions.

Passive aggressive people think they’re being crafty in their attempts to show hostility in subtle ways. A common example is a rude remark followed by, “just kidding”, or a curt response of “fine” in place of an expletive. When it’s apparent their “fine” is an attempt to mask anger, ask them about it. Don’t beat around the bush or allow them to storm off leaving others in their wake of doom and gloom. Directly ask them a question such as, “I hear you tell me you’re ‘fine’, but it seems there is some underlying anger. What can I do to help you better understand…?”

¯ Put the focus back on them.

Another common behavior of the passive aggressive type is badmouthing the efforts of others. The next time your negative colleague tries to suck you into their venomous critique sessions under the guise of “only trying to help”, ask them a simple question. Once they’ve spewed their verbal diarrhea, pointedly ask them this: “What did you do to help the situation?” If they give defensive excuses, commend them for being so concerned and challenge them to channel that energy into “finding a way to help”.

Above all else, it’s important to realize what fuels a passive aggressive person. They rely upon people staying silent in response to their works of deception and mixed messages. Once you show them you won’t be manipulated, you can stop them once and for all.

Elizabeth P. Cipolla, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is a business communications professional specializing in the areas of leadership training, creative recruitment strategies, employment branding, professional development and executive coaching for nearly 20 years. Her leadership experience comes from various industries including marketing, mass media, apparel, education, manufacturing, aeronautical engineering, nonprofit agencies and insurance. To contact Elizabeth, email her at changeagentsee@gmail.com.