Shut down a passive aggressive coworker with 5 steps (2024)

a woman with long curly hair appears to be a passive aggressive coworker

The snarky tone of voice, the backbiting, the avoidance—dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker can be exhausting. Not only are the signs of their displeasure subtle, but it’s also nearly impossible to get them to admit that something is wrong.

So what should you do if you think you’ve got a passive-aggressive coworker on your hands? First, take a deep breath. Then, dive into the tips and tricks below to find some relief!

Table of contents
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Signs of a passive-aggressive coworker
How to deal with a passive-aggressive coworker while maintaining your professionalism
Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker is never easy, but you can do it!

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior happens when someone expresses negative thoughts and feelings indirectly1. Rather than talking directly and openly to you, they will find indirect ways to show how they really feel.

Signs of a passive-aggressive coworker

How can you be sure you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive colleague and not just misinterpreting the signs? Even if you have a high emotional intelligence, you can never be sure of how someone feels unless you ask them. Here are some tell-tale signs of passive aggression that can clue you in.

  • They act nice to you, but they’re saying bad things about you behind your back.
  • They tell you one thing with their words, but their tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures tell a different story.
  • They constantly block your efforts or covertly undermine your work.
  • They deny that anything is wrong when you confront them about it.

How to deal with a passive-aggressive coworker while maintaining your professionalism

Okay, so you’re pretty sure you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker. In that case, we’ve got some tips that can help you resolve the situation.

1. Understand why people act passive aggressively.

People who act passive aggressively do so because, for whatever reason, they are not comfortable expressing how they feel in a direct way. For them, it is easier to hint at how they feel, rather than be upfront about it.

According to WebMD1:

“People who rely on passive aggression rather than direct communication to show these emotions often grew up in a family where that behavior was common. It might not have felt safe for them to directly express their feelings as a child. But people can also pick up this behavior as adults. They may act this way because it helps them get what they want. They may do it to avoid confrontation.”

Pay attention to those last two lines, which reveal two different possible motivations of your passive-aggressive coworker:

  • They’re trying to manipulate you to get what they want. This can be intentional or unintentional.
  • Or they simply disdain confrontation, which shows they might have the good (though misguided) intention of simply getting along with everyone. As WebMD says, “Many people don't realize that they're being passive-aggressive. The behavior may feel ‘normal’ to them. Or they might think it's the best way to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to prevent something bad from happening, like losing their job.”

In the latter case, their passive-aggressive behavior might be the result of company culture or a workplace that doesn’t feel psychologically safe. Alternatively, it might be due to low employee engagement. In fact, Gallup, an analytics company that measures employee engagement, has a label for this type of person: “actively disengaged2.”

“Actively disengaged employees are more or less out to damage their company,” says Gallup. Yikes!

And the passive aggression you’re sensing might not be limited to that one coworker; it might be a company-wide problem. In a global survey conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton, over a quarter of the 30,000 respondents indicated that they work in a passive-aggressive organization3.

So what emotion is behind the passive aggression? It's a form of anger4. If someone doesn't know how to deal with their anger at work, they might resort to the silent treatment or snide comments to express their feelings.

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2. Don’t feed into it.

Whatever you do, try to remain calm (easier said than done, we know!) Returning passive-aggressive behavior with more passive aggression, or even direct aggression, may feed it and make it worse.

If your coworker is being passive aggressive as a means to get what they want, then giving in to their hints will reward that behavior. They’ll learn that their passive aggression is an effective tool to achieve their goals.

Even if they’re doing it because they don’t want to cause conflict, they are indirectly doing just that. And by allowing the behavior to continue, nothing will change. That brings us to our next step.

3. Model assertiveness.

So what can you do to find out what’s going on with your passive-aggressive coworker? Model the appropriate behavior: assertiveness. By doing this, your coworker will see that it is both safe and effective to express their feelings directly.

Some tips for doing this:

  • Speak to them privately. No one likes to be called out in front of people, especially for difficult conversations. Your coworker will feel more at ease in a one-on-one setting.
  • Give concrete examples of the behavior you’ve witnessed in them, and tell them how you interpreted it. Leave out any accusatory language, and do not label them or their behavior as “passive aggressive.” That term will only put them on the defensive.
  • Ask them direct questions. Give them an opportunity to explain their behavior and tell you any needs they may have.

Example: “Hey, I’ve noticed recently that you’ve been late to three meetings about this new project, and when Carol brought up some ideas for it during lunch, you left the table without finishing your meal. I could be wrong, but to me, it feels like you don’t think this project is a good idea; I know it wasn’t the one you voted for. I might be misreading this, which is why I wanted to check in with you directly. I value your opinion, and I need to hear from you. Do you have anything you want to bring to my attention regarding this project?”

It’s possible your coworker will deny something’s wrong at first. Give them time. If they say you’re misinterpreting the situation, then try pointing out one concrete example again and asking, “So what did that mean?”

End the conversation by welcoming their direct expression of their true feelings. You can say something like, “I’m really glad we were able to have an open conversation about this. It helps me so much. I want you to know that my door is always open. If you ever have feedback—even if it’s negative—please tell me. We’re a team, and your opinion matters to me.”

4. Enforce consequences if the behavior doesn’t stop.

Eventually, your coworker should come around, or at least, they should stop the passive-aggressive behavior. If it continues, however, it’s time to take corrective action and let them know that their behavior is unacceptable. You can have another direct conversation with them about the actions you’ve noticed and how this type of behavior is impacting team goals. Be clear on what is expected and what the outcomes will be if the underlying issues aren't resolved.

If they show no improvement, it’s wise to distance yourself from this passive-aggressive coworker. If possible, avoid working on projects with them, and don’t associate with them outside of the office.

If this coworker continues undermining your work, it may be time to bring a supervisor or manager into this to enact disciplinary measures as necessary. They will know how to best manage difficult employees, and at that point, it’s not your responsibility to fix anything.

5. Take care of yourself.

As mentioned before, dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker can drain you—especially if they’re intentionally trying to get you to break. That’s why, after you’ve distanced yourself from them as much as possible, it’s important to take care of your mental health.

  • Talk to a friend who is removed from the situation. Avoid venting to coworkers, as this can easily turn into office gossip, making things worse. Try talking to your partner or a trusted friend who doesn’t know the coworker and isn’t connected to your company.
  • De-stress after work. Once you’re off the clock, do something you love. Go for a run, make your favorite dish, play with your dog or cozy up to a good book. Avoid bringing the toxicity of that passive-aggressive coworker into your personal life.
  • Talk to a therapist. A therapist will be a neutral, non-judgmental resource who has expertise in dealing with passive-aggressive people. Find out if you can get free counseling through your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • Get support from a personal or business coach. A coach can provide impartial advice and guidance. They'll work with you to identify areas of improvement, set personal or business goals and keep you on track to ensure your success.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker is never easy, but you can do it!

If you’re caught in the unpleasant experience of dealing with a passive-aggressive coworker, following these tips should help. Remember, if your coworker doesn’t improve despite your best efforts, it says much more about them than it does about you. Beneath their behavior is a lot of anger and bad habits. It’s not your job to fix them. It might be wise to keep your distance and focus your energy on your work.

Develop the soft skills needed to deal with a passive aggressive coworker

Answer the questions in the assessment to uncover your motivations and blind spots at work. Compare your results with your team using our real-time dashboard. Then, use those insights to improve communication and create team harmony.

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1. WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/passive-aggressive-behavior-overview#1-3

2. Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/356063/gallup-q12-employee-engagement-survey.aspx#

3. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2005/10/the-passive-aggressive-organization

4. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201711/dealing-passive-aggressives-without-losing-your-mind

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