The leadership style is the foundation of an organization’s morale and culture. It sets the tone that can reverberate throughout management down to part-time seasonal workers. Understanding its role in the workplace can provide valuable insights into identifying potential issues in employee behavior and productivity.
Passive aggression can create a toxic workplace environment. It’s particularly critical because an organization’s success depends upon clear communication with all staff members. Negative feelings can stimmy the free flow of ideas and sabotage an organization’s ability to grow its business. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize the signs of passive aggressive (PA) behavior before it takes root.
Defining Passive Aggressiveness
PA behavior occurs when an individual conveys underlying hostility in situations where they feel they cannot express their true feelings. Instead, they release their anger through deliberate acts or language that they use as a means to vent their frustrations.
Flip-flop behavior between contrition and hostility
It can take many forms in the workplace. It can be subtle, such as pretending not to notice a co-worker walking by in the hallway or habitually coming to the office late. Other times, its presence is outright, like missing work deadlines or obstructing changes vocally.
You might notice PA behavior in your children or spouse at home, too. A child may forget to mention that they have homework that is due the next day. A spouse might procrastinate with completing a home project. Some may describe these pretenses as silent forms of hostility, where actions speak deafeningly louder than words.
Effects of Passive Aggressiveness
Stress and frustration underscore PA behavior for both the target of the aggression and those witnessing the scene. Work becomes more of a drudgery, with its newfound culture of negativity. Distrust and avoidance usually follow in its wake.
Productivity and goals take serious blows, with a lack of cooperation and ineffectual communication. That can become especially counterproductive with teams. A passive aggressive individual may withhold data or other vital information to assert their position.
Fueling the fires are feelings of helplessness. Complaining about PA behavior is difficult because it’s hard to identify precisely. How can you prove that a co-worker didn’t realize a deadline was approaching? How can you say definitively that they did ignore your call or text?
It’s equally frustrating when PA behavior occurs at home. It can erode the trust on which a relationship is built. It can also have similar effects on the household’s morale, introducing negative feelings and conflict.
Passive aggressiveness can create a vicious circle of enabling behavior that compounds the problem. Personal and work relationships are on the front line as tensions mount. Inevitably, the resolution steers the course toward an altercation with uncertain results.
Leadership and Passive Aggressiveness on the Job
To understand PA behavior in the workplace, it helps to start at the top to explore the role of leadership. The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) identified five primary leadership styles. They include:
Authoritarian or autocratic: Take charge attitude, making all decisions independently
Transactional: Goal-oriented, with a no-excuse approach
Delegative: Laissez-faire style, sometimes lacking direction
Participative: Motivator, with sometimes more talk than action
Transformational: Inspired leader, willing to listen
Each one has its pros and cons, depending on the industry and the employee base. Interestingly, you can compare these various styles with their role in employee engagement. Sobering statistics from the Gallup State of the American Workplace draw a roadmap to possible sources of PA behavior based on the leadership style and its effects among the staff. Consider these figures.
Only 13 percent of survey respondents felt that their organization’s leadership communicated well with all members of its team.
More than half of employees admitted that they were actively seeking greener pastures.
Perhaps most telling of all, only one-third of employees are actively engaged in their jobs.
All these things point to inconspicuous signs of passive aggressiveness among workers that show up on an organization’s bottom line. Unfortunately, it comes at a staggering price, with lost productivity estimates up to $605 billion, according to Gallup.
Causes of Passive Aggressiveness Among Employees
The fact remains that less than 50 percent of American adults have a full-time job (pre-COVID). You have only to look at what workers want and what they’re not getting to understand the roots of their frustration and why some have chosen to leave the workforce. PA behavior often is an outlet for those who stay.
The things employees want from their employers include:
A pathway to upward movement on the corporate ladder
Tools and education to do their jobs better
An organization with a good reputation in the community
A healthy work-life balance
Employees also want an employer who provides consistent and positive feedback. They place a high value on clear expectations and goals. Without these things, resentment takes holding, fueling PA behavior.
The leadership styles most likely to foster PA behavior are the authoritarian or delegative ones. It’s easy to see why. The former stifles creativity and can make it difficult to move up in a company. The latter leaves employees with no clear pathway to success, which contributes to stress and job security fears.
Signs of Passive Aggressiveness in the Workplace
Humans have a basic need to feel appreciated. That’s part of what makes a supervisor’s feedback so vital to employee morale. Many won’t risk speaking up if they aren’t rewarded for a job well done or passed over for a promotion—at least to anyone in management. However, the signs of PA behavior are on display to anyone who looks close enough.
There is an ever-so-subtle drop in performance and efficiency. The extra mile has evaporated. It becomes merely a matter of getting things done to get one’s comeuppance for being slighted.
Passive aggressiveness can become more serious as the employee’s hostility builds up without resolution. Instead of nipping a problem in the bud, it escalates and becomes a fire that management must handle.
Solutions to Heal the Toxic Environment
Whether the PA behavior is on full display at the office or home, there are several ways to diffuse the situation. It’s essential to remember that a person may not realize how they’re acting. They may think they’re doing a decent job of bottling up their feelings. The analogy of a pressure cooker is an apt one.
Sometimes, the line between work and home is blurred. An individual who is used to being in control at the office may bring those same traits to their family life.
Bear in mind that there are raw emotions smoldering behind the passive aggression, whether it’s anger, resentment, or sorrow. Nagging or calling out the behavior isn’t the wisest approach and often will not resolve anything. Throwing fire at fire rarely results in a happy ending.
Instead, acknowledging the issue can open the door to a successful conclusion. After all, a person who is acting passive aggressive is hurt. In an office setting, a one-on-one meeting with their manager can provide a similar benefit. The other vital piece is listening. An individual with a grievance wants to be heard and their feelings recognized.
Communication With Passive Aggressive Individuals
The targets of PA behavior must take care of themselves, too. That means you shouldn’t chide yourself for calling out the perpetuator’s actions. Nor should you apologize if you’ve done nothing wrong or the other person has misinterpreted a situation. Feeling guilty or even resentful yourself is normal. No one likes confrontation, especially if it’s baseless.
However, sometimes, the best approach you can take as a co-worker or friend, it to go dark for a while and give them some space. It’ll give you the time to heal and perhaps encourage the passive-aggressive person to rethink their actions. Often, these individuals act to get a rise out of their targets. Do yourself a favor and don’t fall for these tactics.
Passive aggression is toxic behavior that can put relationships in jeopardy, whether it happens at the office or on the homefront. It makes communication and, thus, resolution difficult while adding to everyone’s frustration. For organizations, it can threaten the fabric holding the corporate culture together. For individuals, it can bring distrust and conflict.
Dealing with PA behavior is challenging. While you may want to speak your mind, it’s often best to take the high road and acknowledge the problem. However, it’s not an excuse to placate anyone or carry the burden of things you didn’t do.
A passive aggressive individual must manage their issues on their own, perhaps with professional guidance. That’s the only way they will free themselves of their hostility and resentment. Fixing problems means open communication. If they’re unwilling to talk, there’s little you can do to remedy the situation. In the meantime, it’s not wrong or mean to pull back to take care of yourself.
Depression can develop for different reasons. As a result, there are several types of depression.
These major types of depression are:
Characterized by episodes of mood known as mania: delusions, overactivity, extreme excitement or euphoria. There can be elation, excess energy and the person might have relentless ideas, talk rapidly, not want to sleep or eat, do irrational things and make risky or harmful decisions.
Most bipolar disorder sufferers also have episodes of deep depression. They may feel unbearably sad, empty, pessimistic and irritable most of the time, lack energy, have trouble focussing, experience memory issues, not be able to sleep and also have suicidal thoughts. Tragically, the risk of suicide in someone suffering from bipolar disorder is 15 times more than in the overall population.
Major depressive disorder (MDD)
Also known as classic depression, unipolar depression, clinical depression and major depression, this is one of the most common types of depression.
A person will be diagnosed with MDD if they are experiencing five or more of the following symptoms during a two-week period. These cannot be because of substance abuse or another condition – and “depressed mood” or “loss of interest or pleasure” has to be at least one of their symptoms.
Depressed mood nearly every day for most of the day.
Significantly diminished interest or pleasure in all or most activities nearly every day for the majority of the day.
Significant weight loss when not dieting. Or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite most days.
A slowing of thoughts, and a reduction of physical movement that’s observable by others.
Loss of energy or fatigue most days.
Feeling worthless or with inappropriate excessive guilt virtually every day.
Less ability to concentrate and think or indecisiveness most days.
Recurring thoughts of death and/or suicide (with or without a specific plan), or a suicide attempt.
Sometimes known as MDD with atypical features, atypical depression is a depression that goes away in response to positive events. This means someone may not always appear depressed.
Common symptoms include: excessive sleep or insomnia, fatigue, poor body image, feeling overwhelmed, excessive appetite, weight gain, and intense sensitivity to criticism.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
SAD has similar symptoms to MDD, but develops in someone during a particular season – mostly during the dark and cold winter months. For this reason it is sometimes called MDD with seasonal pattern. It is seen much more in far southern and far northern nations where there is much less light for long periods of each year.
Persistent depressive disorder (PDD)
While PDD is generally not as intense as MDD, it persists in someone for at least two years. It can make day-to-day living extremely difficult. Relief of symptoms can come – but for a maximum of eight weeks.
Previously called dysthymia, it’s also sometimes referred to as chronic depression. Symptoms include a lack of energy, irritability, anger, changes to appetite, social withdrawal, difficulties in daily tasks, poor self-esteem, insomnia or oversleeping, overwhelming sadness, memory and concentration issues, loss of interest in hobbies and things previously enjoyed, and extreme feelings of guilt.
There are some people diagnosed with MDD who also have periods when they lose touch with reality. This is called psychosis and it causes hallucinations, paranoia and delusion. Experiencing at least two of these at the same time is MDD with psychotic features.
Postpartum depression (PPD)
PPD is depression after giving birth, and there’s also perinatal depression while a woman is pregnant. Both are believed to be linked to hormonal changes as well as sleeplessness and physical difficulties that are common during pregnancy and around the birth of a baby.
Another factor is that when a woman is expecting or has a baby it can seem to intensify any problems, such as worries about their partner, financial issues or work and home problems.
Symptoms include self-harm (or thoughts), appetite changes, social withdrawal, feeling hopeless and worthless, anxiety, panic attacks, severe mood swings, difficulty bonding with the baby, thoughts of hurting the baby, guilt, deep sadness, thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
PMDD has symptoms that are similar to PMS (premenstrual syndrome) such as anxiety, bloating, breast tenderness, irritability, moodiness, fatigue and increased appetite – but they are much more intense. A woman with PMDD can have depression that adversely affects their normal daily life.
Symptoms include feelings of stress, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, frequently tearful or crying, anxiety, panic attacks, lethargy, extreme anger, sleep problems, general irritability and binge eating.
If you think you or someone you know could have any type of depression, it is essential to speak with a therapist. Depression is always treatable – but it needs to be looked at as soon as possible.
A people-pleaser is exactly as it sounds – a person who is always trying to make other people pleased with them. This is even if it means they have no time left for themselves.
People-pleasing is not an official mental health diagnosis. But it is a mental health condition that can be seen in many people today and it often leads to emotional and mental health problems.
Many people-pleasers are compassionate people who have a great deal of empathy. Yet for people-pleasers the issue is deeper than merely wanting to be kind and considerate.
A great deal of the driving force behind someone who is a people-pleaser is low self-esteem. Esteem is a word that derives from Latin aestimare, meaning “to estimate” – so self-esteem simply means how you value yourself.
So their continual enthusiasm and need to please other people comes from this low self-worth. They think that by saying yes to everything and everyone it will mean they are worth something and loved.
Parent-pleasing to people-pleasing
It is frequently that their people-pleasing started in childhood when the child learned to become a parent-pleaser. To try and get their needs met and feel valued they ran around, often with a constant smile on their face, trying to please one or both parents.
People-pleasing can easily be confused with simply being kind and selfless. If someone else (or the please-pleaser themselves) questions why they can never seem to say the word “no” they will reason something like: “I’m just trying to be kind” or “I can’t let them down.”
A people-pleaser has a craving to feel needed and invaluable because they do not really value themselves. So they are looking continually for external validation.
It works to a small degree. But it is tremendously away from what they really need, which is to know self-love and self-worth.
So this often means they let other people take advantage of them. For this reason it’s not uncommon for a people-pleaser to end up in an abusive relationship – with the abusive partner taking from them all the time and the people-pleasing partner constantly giving all of themselves all of the time.
Codependency and people-pleasing
In a healthy relationship there’s an equal amount of give and take between the partners. It’s also why most codependents are people-pleasers, although not every people-pleaser is codependent.
Being a people-pleaser is an extremely stressful and frequently painful way to live. Because no matter how much they give to others they don’t ever get what they are truly seeking. The real solution comes from within.
As a result, people-pleasers frequently suffer from depression, stress and anxiety. They will bottle up emotions, such as what they really want to say to someone who’s always taking from them.
Then there might also be addiction issues as they try to push down negative feelings of frustration and anger, some of which is at themselves for not ever seeming to be able to say no. More often than not, they have no “me” time or any spare time at all because they are always doing things for other people.
10 Major signs of people-pleasing
Saying yes when meaning no In their head is the word “no” because they know they don’t have enough time (and it’s the hundredth time this person has asked them to give their time in the past month) and yet what comes out is: “Yes.” Then there is the remorse and beating up of oneself that follows. This can spiral into depression.
Cannot cope with anger It’s because a people-pleaser is desperate to be liked. It’s always good to be liked, but sometimes we need to make the choice between being liked or being respected. But a people-pleaser will avoid anger aimed towards them at all costs. They also find it virtually impossible to get angry at someone else in situations where this might be needed – for instance, when making it clear a healthy boundary has been breached.
Feeling in charge of someone else’s emotional state Someone who’s a people-pleaser finds it hard to accept that they cannot help someone to move into a better mood. So they will do all they can and often consequently incur the wrath of the person they are trying to help, which then creates a vicious cycle.
Avoiding conflict A common phrase of a people-pleaser is: “I just want a peaceful life” or “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” This is mostly, but not always, to do with a partner whose behavior is frequently unacceptable. But a people-pleaser is terrified of conflict – and that is often the result of growing up in a household that resembled a war zone rather than the safe sanctuary a home should be.
Can never say they feel negative emotions Someone who’s a people-pleaser will not be able to let anyone know when their feelings are negative, such as when they feel sadness, embarrassment or disappointment. It’s to do with their low self-worth and the mistaken belief that no one should bother with them because they’re not really worth it. This means that their relationships are shallow. It also means that a people-pleaser will deny their true feelings.
Having no time People who are people-pleasers never have any time for their own hobbies or work or even simply to relax – because they are always doing something for someone else. This means that they are very often in a stressed state because they are having to squeeze in some things for themselves they must do. It can make for anxiety as well as lack of sleep, with all the emotional and physical problems that can bring.
Imitating those around When someone has low self-esteem it means they also have a low sense of self. Because a people-pleaser is so desperate to please they will copy other people’s behavior. This can often be detrimental, such as drinking too much when they don’t really want to drink at all. Not being true to themselves in this way, although difficult as they are unlikely to know their true self anyway, leaves them with a gut feeling that is painfully uncomfortable. This can lead to self-loathing.
Seeking praise at all costs It’s human nature to enjoy being commended or congratulated for something we’ve done. But a people-pleaser has to have this sort of praise and will do almost anything to get it. Unfortunately, this often means not being who they truly are and that leaves them feeling bewildered, exasperated and quite frequently in deep despair too. Another problem is that people-pleasers are often attracted to people who never give out any praise. So they end up in a relentless chase for praise – and that is exhausting, infuriating and frustrating. If they do get praise it gives them such a temporary high that they will chase that again too – and it can become like an addiction.
Constantly saying sorry A people-pleaser cannot seem to stop themselves from apologizing all the time. They are continually blaming themselves – and even if someone asks them in a kind way to stop saying sorry so often they find themselves replying: “Sorry.”
Agreeing with someone even when disagreeing People-pleasers will nod their heads and agree even when they don’t agree, even when they really think the direct opposite – and sometimes when they might even know for a fact that what someone is saying is wrong.
We are the same as every living thing – in that our environment shapes us. In fact it will shape us to the extent that we either grow to our full wonderful potential or we can fade and die.
An analogy that makes it plain to understand how vital our environment is to us is to realize how we care for plants in our garden. We know it is essential to have the correct soil, to keep the soil in the best conditions possible by ensuring it has enough water and nutrients, that the plant has sufficient sunshine and doesn’t get too hot or cold.
We know that if we neglect any of these, the plant will wilt and if left uncared for it would eventually at some point die. The environment we live in is just as vital to our wellbeing.
This means not only our home, but also the community and even country we live in. Our environment needs to be a sanctuary and provide what we need to grow and thrive.
Mental, emotional, spiritual and physical
Human beings are social creatures. We were made that way, as part of our survival as originally we didn’t have so much to protect us as many animals do, such as long sharp fangs or pointed claws.
Likewise we don’t have fur to keep us warm. Then there is the fact that human babies are born far more underdeveloped than almost all animals.
For the first 12 months a human baby is totally dependent on the adults around it for food, shelter and warmth as we can’t even walk for usually around nine to 12 months old. Yet, most baby animals can walk within days and sometimes hours.
A human brain doubles in size in the first year. So it’s growing rapidly – and the environment around it will influence how it develops.
Negative consequences on our cells of being in a frequent or continual state of alert at real or perceived dangers has been scientifically proven. Stem-cell biologist and author Dr Bruce Lipton has explained how the trillions of cells in our body are either growing and maintaining our health or in a defensive mode when they cannot grow as they should.
Being in a damaging environment like this means we’re more likely to become ill – that can be in a mental, emotional or physical sense. Increasingly, experts such as Dr Lipton and physician, author and trauma expert Dr Gabor Maté are stating how mental, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of us are all inextricably linked.
Disconnection is a major part of all mental health problems. Frequently, people who are suffering from such as addiction, anxiety or depression will feel alone and disconnected from other people.
So the world around us and the people in it are vital to our wellbeing. We need to feel connected.
No main is an island
Renowned psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) used another plant analogy that explains this so well. Talking about a plant’s rhizome, which is its stem that is continuously growing underground, he said: “Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome.
“The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away – an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity.
“Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.”
So underneath the soil there are roots, there’s the soil, there are nutrients in the soil, and vital things for the life of the plant happen in the soil when it rains. Then above and around the plant there’s the air and oxygen, the sunshine, the rain, night and day…
If the plant ignored all of these other parts of it, and relied solely on itself, it would soon wither and die. It can be said that’s the same with us if we ignore connections around us.
The war on drugs
Portugal’s decriminalization and changed policy on illegal drugs in the past decade proves this point. Instead of spending money on the “war on drugs”, the country – that had one of the highest number of drug users in Europe – started to spend that money on rehabilitation and to allow users to integrate in society again.
For instance, a group of three people who’d been carpenters until their drug use had put them out of action, were encouraged – with financial help – to start up a small carpentry company to do their work around their community. This gave them a connection again.
There’s a strong point here that for many addicts the connection they have with their drug replaces any other connection. It becomes their number one and sometimes only “relationship”.
Within a few years of this new policy Portugal saw a huge improvement. For example, Portugal’s drug death toll plummeted to three per million compared to the European average of more than 17 per million.
People need people
It’s also one of the reasons the Twelve Steps group meetings and regular one-one-one therapy both work so well. There’s connection between people – and what they think and feel.
Sometimes when people have grown up in an environment, their home and/or community where there was little positive and loving connection, therapy might be the first time they have ever felt validated and valued as a person. Feeling unloved as they may have in this way leads to all sorts of emotional and mental health problems.
Of course, if the environment someone has grown up in – or it could be they presently live – is one where abuse and aggression is commonplace, it is bound to have negative consequences.
So while a great deal of recovery is about working on inner feelings and beliefs, the external environment has to be considered as it certainly plays a major part in someone’s wellbeing.
Today while there are more ways of connecting than ever before, there is actually less real connection. Communities were stronger in the past and all generations of a family used to live closer to each other.
In general, people had more time for each other even including those in their household. There was more connection.
It is like if we took a piece of coal from a glowing fire… on its own without the warmth of the fire the piece of coal would soon go out. People need other people: we need connection and relationships.