“Behind the smile, a hidden knife!”

passive aggressive


One of the more difficult types of employees or colleagues to work with are those whom we would describe as “passive-aggressive”.  A (supposedly) old Chinese saying goes:  “Behind the smile, a hidden knife!”


According to the medical practice and research group Mayo Clinic™, “passive-aggressive people tend to express their negative feelings harmfully, but indirectly. Instead of dealing with issues, they behave in ways that veil their hostility and mask their discontent.”  Underlying the behaviour are feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.  They may have grown up in a family with a very dominate, aggressive parent and one very submissive parent.  In cases like this, the submissive parent, in order to protect the kids and to keep peace, will often tell the child, “We won’t tell your father”.  The message is clear – you can’t get what you want (or need) by asking, but it’s ok to lie, or keep secrets in order to get what you want.


I think most of us have had occasional situations where we have been unwilling to express how we really feel (it may not seem smart, or safe to do so) and we exacted our revenge in indirect ways.  The difference between those of us who have experienced this and the “true” passive-aggressive personality, is that the latter has an on-going and repetitive pattern of behavior.  This is their typical way of reacting whenever there is conflict or they become angry.


For example, they might sulk, withdraw from people emotionally, or find indirect ways to communicate how they feel.  They don’t tell you they are angry; they just bang cupboard doors.  They are not going to let you be the boss of them” so they may be continually late – for meetings, for social events, for anything that you do together.  Ever notice how people who are “always” late seldom miss a plane?


Passive Aggressive behavior can involve everything from the passive resistance of everyday social and work-related tasks (e.g. procrastination, learned helplessness, deliberate inefficiency, and forgetfulness) through to stubbornness, resentment, and contradictory behavior (e.g. appearing to be enthusiastic about something, but purposefully acting in a way that’s unhelpful and sometimes damaging).


They might also use sarcasm as a weapon to attack colleagues (pretending that they are joking), or spread harmful rumors.


They may say things like:

  1. “I’m not mad.” (but all their non-verbals tell you that they are furious)
  2. “Fine.” “Whatever.”  (in a tone of voice that clearly shows it’s NOT fine)
  3. “I’m coming!” (but deliberately dawdling so as to make you wait)
  4. “I didn’t know you meant now.” (deliberate misunderstanding of the urgency of an assigned task)
  5. “You just want everything to be perfect.” (carry out tasks but do them poorly or sabotage them – make it appear that you are being unreasonable)
  6. “I thought you knew.” (withholding required information with the excuse that if it went wrong it’s your fault)
  7. “Sure, I’d be happy to.” (but the thing they were happy to do somehow just never gets done)
  8. “You’ve done so well for someone with your education level.” (damning with faint praise)
  9. “I was only joking” (they aren’t but it gives them deniability if you are offended)
  10. “Why are you getting so upset?”(you are being unreasonable and I truly hope you are not blaming me!)


So, if you do find yourself having to work with a Passive Aggressive type of person, what can you do?


First, examine your own behavior.  Is it safe (emotionally) to disagree with you or when people disagree do you go off like a Roman candle?  While you have not caused someone to become passive aggressive, you may enhance their tendencies in this direction if you yell, become overly-aggressive, or in short, act like their domineering, controlling parent did.


Second, remain calm, and avoid labelling them as passive-aggressive.


Third, do not encourage this behaviour by refusing to set limits and doing the incomplete or poorly performed task yourself.  Be clear about consequences of non-compliance or poor performance.


Fourth, do not let them communicate with you through notes or emails. Be prepared to have matter-of-fact, face-to-face discussions about the substance of the issues (rather than about how they went about it).


Fifth, give up the magic wish that you can change them.  You are not their therapist, just their manager or a colleague.  Be prepared to hang in there for the long haul, and stay the course.


Copyright © 2015 Pitsel & Associates Ltd., All rights reserved.