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Passive Aggression In The Workplace And What To Know About It

Passive aggression is probably one of the most annoying things that can happen in the workplace. It is a behaviour that can cost energy, reputation, time, money and other resources. And it hits the mood and health, especially if you become the target of passive aggressiveness yourself.

What is passive aggressiveness?

Aggressiveness is not simply aggressiveness. It comes in different forms, dimensions and strategies. In the business environment, people usually just talk about aggressiveness. However, this usually refers to active aggressiveness, which is discussed more often than passive aggressiveness. This includes, for example, power plays, dominance behaviour, use of killer phrases, personal attacks, insults, sexist remarks, inappropriate jokes and so on. While active aggression is more recognisable because it is open and direct, passive aggression is more complex because it is not directly recognisable, but only indirectly. And because active aggressiveness is so obviously tangible and can be seen and heard by everyone, it is automatically made the subject of conversation much more often in the corporate context. But just because this form of aggression comes across as loud and recognisable, one should not be deceived by what passive aggression can do in comparison.

It is worth taking a closer look at where passive aggression takes place and in what way it becomes noticeable. Because this aggression can be much more far-reaching and, depending on the circumstances, poison an entire company culture. The damage it can cause is enormous and the consequences for the company can hardly be underestimated: Lower productivity, poor communication, declining morale, toxic environment, diminished trust, poor collaboration and, of course, dissatisfied customers. All this can become really frustrating and demoralising, both for the targets of such passive aggressiveness, but also for the managers who have to clean up the resulting mess.

Here are a few examples known for typical passive-aggressive behaviour:

  • Procrastination: Deliberately procrastinating or putting off tasks or responsibilities in order to avoid or undermine them.

  • Sarcasm: Using sarcastic or ironic language to express criticism or annoyance in a way that is not overtly hostile.

  • Withholding: Refusing to share important information, resources or support as a means of punishing or controlling others.

  • Withdrawing affection or attention: Deliberately creating distance or neglect, also as a means of punishment and emotional control over others.

  • Sabotage: Interfering with or undermining other people's efforts in order to achieve a personal goal oneself.

  • False accusations: Shifting responsibility for one's own mistakes or problems onto others instead of taking them on oneself.

  • Inducing feelings of guilt: Manipulating others through moral appeals to their sense of guilt or duty.

  • Complain to a third party: Passively expressing dissatisfaction or frustration instead of dealing directly with the problem and the person concerned.

  • Subtle putdowns: Making derogatory but disguised remarks about the work of others.

  • Denial: Refusing to acknowledge or accept responsibility for one's own actions or behaviour.

  • Hypocrisy: Pretending not to express one's true feelings and views on a subject or person (putting on a good face).

  • Disguising aggression as joking: Using humour or playfulness to disguise hostile or aggressive intentions.

  • Disguising aggression as concern: Pretending to be concerned or worried about someone in order to manipulate or control their behaviour.

  • Closing oneself off: Refusing to communicate or participate in discussions in order to avoid conflict or resolution.

  • Insincere apologies: To apologise for an offence while expressing displeasure or disbelief that it was necessary.

  • Spread rumours: Damage the reputation of others and discredit them with untrue stories or raise doubts about their integrity.

The signs of passive aggressiveness in the workplace

This list is not exhaustive. But it shows how far-reaching the web of passive aggressiveness can be. Looking at this list, most people know what we are talking about because all of us have experienced such forms of passive aggressiveness somewhere. The fact is, however, that the signs in the workplace are often subtle and difficult to recognise. Usually they are only recognised when it is too late - which can have several reasons.

For one thing, even if one realises at an early stage that one is the target of passive aggressiveness, many remain cautious at first because they do not want to offend the alleged aggressor by possibly falsely accusing him or her of something he or she may not have done after all. The «clear proof» is still missing. So many think, let's wait and see and keep an eye on this. The weird thing is, that this very hesitation is in and of itself a form of passive aggression.

On the other hand: Passive aggressiveness simply does not want to be discovered or recognised. It only wants to «enjoy» the damage from hidden. Therefore, cobwebs are not infrequently interwoven in such a way that in the case of a possible accusation, collateral damage can occur and different people are played off against each other in the process.

In addition, communication via technologies such as e-mails, text messages or social media bring additional complications. Namely in the form that encrypted messages are sent. In other words, communication is avoided rather than promoted by this technology. For example, by perhaps not even replying to emails or text messages and ignoring them. Or: expressing oneself in a particularly cryptic way in order to deliberately create ambiguity that is intended to provoke potential misunderstandings. Or: deliberately exclude individuals from the distribution list for important e-mails.

Why do people resort to passive aggression in the first place?

It's difficult to say, because you would have to know all the people and understand the situations they are in.

But there are nevertheless explanatory possibilities to get more clarity about why someone tends to be more active or passive aggressive. Keyword: asymmetrical and symmetrical communication. Since I have already gone into the differences between symmetrical and asymmetrical communication elsewhere, I would like to avoid repeating them here and not go into them in more depth.

The fact is, however, that vertical people tend to be hierarchical and display territorial behaviour. That in itself is nothing negative. But the communication style tends to be confrontational, so in case of aggression, these people are more inclined to express it openly and directly. If status and hierarchy are the main drivers in this vertical communication system, it is only a logical consequence that any form of aggression must be understood as part of their demonstration of power. The public display of their «attack» is therefore what makes it so appealing, because it is supposed to give the «spectators» involved the opportunity to see who is in charge. Of course, such frontal attacks can be particularly unpleasant for the target, but at least in such a case one knows what one is dealing with and, above all, who one is dealing with, and can also take a stand accordingly and take action against it.

Quite different are those people who are located in the symmetrical language system, who show the opposite behaviour. Their mode of communication is oriented towards equality and bonding. It is predominantly indirect because this communication system does not want to push itself to the fore and certainly does not want to expose others. This system takes special account of the needs and feelings of others. To do this, it is necessary to avoid confrontation as much as possible. That, too, is nothing negative in itself. But of course, this language system also has its downsides. When negative feelings arise, such as anger or resentment, there is also (as with the asymmetrical system) a logical consequence of this shadow side, namely that the aggressiveness of the the symmetrical manifests itself in an equally indirect and passive way. It does not want to appear. It does not want to push itself into the foreground. It does not want to have to engage in direct confrontation.

Put a little more pathetically: When being aggressive the weapon of the asymmetrical system is the «sword». The sword is something you can see coming. This weapon is fast, brutal and head-on. If you react quickly and know how to defend yourself, you have a real chance of doing something about it.

The weapon of the symmetrical system, on the other hand, is the «poison». This is something you don't really see coming. Unlike the sword, the poison is a weapon that always reaches its target indirectly and via detours. The poison needs a certain amount of time to unfold its full effect. It happens slowly and in secret. It makes its way through a complex system and the victim usually only notices it when the damage has already been done.

It is what it is. Every particular strength in a system inevitably has its particular downside, and it is the context that determines when, where, how and what makes more sense. One is not inevitably better than the other.

How to deal with passive aggressiveness in the workplace

There cannot be a general answer to this. Because we have to keep in mind that this is always a behaviour that involves an indirect expression of feelings and can thus also take many different forms depending on the context. Some strategies that can be successful in warding off active aggression do not necessarily work in the case of passive aggression. And vice versa. So you have to know what you are dealing with in order to be able to proceed as effectively as possible.

Depending on roles, authority, responsibilities and context, it may be helpful to consider the following strategies.

  • Address it directly: If you are affected by passive aggression, it is important to address it directly and calmly. Try to have a conversation with the person to clarify their intentions and feelings. Of course, how you do this is crucial. It is helpful to use language that is as non-judgmental as possible and to address observations in particular. This way, the person does not immediately feel that their back is against the wall and emotions can be defused at the same time.

  • Do not allow escalation: It is important to nip passive aggression in the bud before it can escalate. On the one hand, direct addressing helps, as mentioned above, on the other hand, you may have to try repeatedly, depending on the situation. But it is better to do it once more and too early instead of waiting too long when the damage is possibly irreparable.

  • «Nimm es persönlich!»: Das mag jetzt vielleicht kontra-intuitiv erscheinen, denn üblicherweise hört man den Rat, es nicht persönlich zu nehmen, um damit einen möglichst kühlen Kopf zu bewahren. Das trifft aus meiner Erfahrung sicherlich bei der aktiven Aggressivität zu, aber nicht bei der passiven. Bei der passiven Aggressivität können wir meistens davon ausgehen, dass die Aggression persönlicher Natur ist. Es persönlich zu nehmen, birgt selbstverständlich das Risiko unprofessionell zu handeln, weil emotional. Andererseits bringt es auch Vorteile. Zum einen, wenn es um die eigene Person geht, ist Zögern keine Option. Man will schliesslich die Dinge möglichst schnell geregelt und vom Tisch haben. Zum anderen, man nimmt die Angelegenheit ernst genug, um überhaupt tätig zu werden.

  • "Take it personally!": Now this may seem counter-intuitive, because usually you hear the advice not to take it personally, so as to keep as cool a head as possible. In my experience, this is certainly true with active aggressiveness, but not with passive aggressiveness. With passive aggressiveness, we can usually assume that the aggression is of a personal nature. Taking it personally, of course, carries the risk of acting unprofessionally because it is emotional. On the other hand, it also brings advantages. For one thing, when it comes to one's own person, hesitation is not an option. After all, you want to have things settled and off the table as quickly as possible. And second, you take the matter seriously enough to take action at all.

As I said, getting passive aggression under control is tedious and difficult. In my experience, directly addressing works best. Provided you do it as described in the first point: Use observations and non-judgmental language.

As a communication trainer, however, I notice time and time again that this is not so easy for many people. When we are emotionally involved, we react more reflexively with our language. In this case, we are more inclined to condemn the other person instead of observing and communicating the situation accordingly.

But the good thing is that anyone can practice it. And if you want to learn more about how to put these things into practice - for yourself, your company or your team - then I would be happy to hear from you.


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