Signs You’re Being Passive-Aggressive
When was the last time you did any of the following at work?
- You didn’t share your honest view on a topic, even when asked.
- You got upset with someone, but didn’t let them know why.
- You procrastinated on completing a deliverable primarily because you just didn’t see the value in it.
- You praised someone in public, but criticized them in private.
- You responded to an exchange with, “Whatever you want is fine. Just tell me what you want me to do,” when in actuality, it wasn’t fine with you.
Whether intentional or not, these are all signs you’re being passive-aggressive. Whenever there is a disconnect between what you say (passive) and what you do (aggressive), you fall into that camp. And while it’s easy to recognize a passive aggressive co-worker — the colleague who is agreeable to your face but badmouths the idea behind your back or the sarcastic direct report whose constant retort is “but it was just a joke” — recognizing one’s own passive-aggressive behaviors at work can be quite difficult.
Take Chris, for example, a senior marketing executive that I coached. When we discussed the 360 feedback he’d received as part of a leadership development program, he was shocked at what his colleagues wrote about him:
“You never quite know where Chris stands on an issue. He’ll agree to one thing in a meeting but then do something completely different in the follow through. That can make it hard to trust him.”
“While Chris is a really nice guy, I wonder if he’s really honest with his views. He’ll say he’s fine with some thing but you can just tell he’s not and he’s saying that just so we can move on.”
“Chris makes backhanded comments about the quality of someone’s work or idea without directly addressing the issue with the person. It comes off as snarky. It’s not what you’d expect of a leader.”
While Chris admitted that there was some truth to what was described, he bristled at the thought of being perceived as passive-aggressive. Yet that’s exactly what he was.
Over time, passive-aggressive behavior is a slippery slope that breeds mistrust and chips away at your credibility. Being known as passive-aggressive will not serve you well in your career. Fortunately, it’s possible to change your behavior. Though it requires a commitment to self-development and a willingness to get out of your comfort zone.
Here are five strategies to consider:
1. Recognize the behavior. It’s important that you recognize which circumstances or situations drive you to be passive-aggressive. Knowing what they are helps you consciously explore other ways to respond. Start by thinking about the circumstances that bring out these behaviors: Who was involved? How did the situation unfold? How did you react? What happened? Do you see a pattern? Chris recognized that when he felt like his contributions were not valued or like he wasn’t being heard, he resorted to a passive-aggressive stance. This particularly true in leadership team meetings where Chris felt like he had to defend marketing’s role, value, and resources to the rest of the organization. He had a hard time understanding why he was always being tested.
2. Identify the cause. There is likely an underlying cause for your passive-aggressiveness — it can be a fear of failure (a desire for perfection), a fear of rejection (a desire to be liked), or a fear of conflict (a desire for harmony). It’s critical to understand the root of the issue so that you can address it head on and determine whether your fear is warranted. For Chris, the root cause was a fear of conflict and the belief that if others valued him, they wouldn’t push and question him and his group. In effect, Chris equated any sign of conflict with not being valued. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Others questioned marketing because they saw it as a critical part of the business and wanted to ensure its success. When Chris realized how his beliefs were driving his passive-aggressive behavior, he saw how important it was to change his default response.
3. Be honest with yourself. Once you understand the underlying reasons for your behavior, you need to be honest with yourself about what you really want. Continuing to veil or deny your feelings will only perpetuate the passive-aggressive response. What is it that you truly think? What is it that you really want to say? What outcome are you hoping for? Then think about how to express that desire in a direct, but respectful, way.
4. Embrace conflict. A large part of letting go of passive-aggressive behavior is accepting that conflict happens. Conflict at work (or anywhere) is not necessarily a bad thing if you make an effort to move through it productively. Seek mutual understanding (not to be mistaken with mutual agreement) of each other’s positions and recognize that even if you don’t agree with someone, it typically does not mean that the relationship is in jeopardy. By accepting that engaging in conflict enhanced what his division had to offer rather than derailing its work, Chris more readily took part in those interactions. Instead of shutting down the exchanges by offering a fake agreement or withholding critical feedback, he respectively disagreed and asked questions to better understand his colleagues’ perspectives.
5. Get input. Working on any behavioral change is hard. It’s easy to be overly critical of your own efforts or simply disappointed that you’re not seeing enough progress. For that reason, it’s important to check in with others on how you’re doing. Share what you’re working on with a few folks that you trust. Periodically, ask them how you’re doing. Do they get the sense that you’re just talking the talk, or actually walking the walk? Chris’s road was not an easy one and every now and then he defaulted back to his passive-aggressive response. But over time, those occasions became more and more rare as Chris focused on being direct and clear in what he wanted to communicate. Some of his confidantes did a good job holding him accountable, even going as far as kicking him under the table during team meetings if he started showing the passive-aggressive behavior that he’d worked so hard to shed.
Managing your own passive aggressive behaviors is about getting rid of the incongruity between your internal dialogue — what you think — and your external actions — what others see and hear. Not only will aligning your thoughts with your actions build trust with your work colleagues; you’ll increase your own self-confidence and trust in yourself. And there is nothing passive-aggressive about that.