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.
The fourth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” defines the following criteria:
- Argumentative behavior
- Passive resistance to completing tasks
- Feelings of being misunderstood
- Feelings of resentment
- Ongoing complaints about personal misfortunes
- Scorn of authoritative figures
- 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
- Job security
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.