How to Do Away with Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

Honest emotional expression is often difficult in the workplace, because appearing emotional is not seen as “professional” behaviour. However, workplace dynamics can often have a noticeable impact on one’s self-worth and emotional well-being. As a result, we create an incongruity between what we feel and what we say or do. This could include deflecting responsibility for tasks, intentionally missing deadlines, withholding important information, or going over someone’s head to make him or her appear incompetent. Unfortunately, passive-aggressive behaviour breeds mistrust and chips away at your credibility. Assertive communication, rather than passive-aggressive communication, in the workplace can help you make sure your needs are being met without harming your credibility.

The first step to eliminating passive-aggression from your behaviour is learning how passive-aggression works. Signe Whitson, L.S.W outlines the five main types of passive-aggressive behaviour, which include temporary compliance, intentional inefficiency, and sometimes self-destructive behaviour. Think about what your behaviour looks like when you’re unhappy at work - if it matches any of Whitson’s criteria, it’s time to make a change. Think about the circumstances that bring out these behaviours, and consider whether that behaviour is related to, for example, a fear of failure or fear of conflict. Once you’ve identified the causes of your passive aggression, it will become easier to prevent it.

When you find yourself feeling frustrated in the workplace, make an effort to communicate in an assertive, constructive way. It can be helpful to think of communication styles as a continuum which runs from passive strategies on the left to aggressive strategies on the right. Assertive strategies, at the middle of the continuum, allow you to communicate your interests while remaining respectful of the other person. Make clear, assertive requests, maintain a respectful and open nonverbal attitude, and monitor your tone of voice (this goes for email communication as well).

Finding the words to communicate assertively is not always easy. First, think honestly about the outcome you are hoping for, and what might be standing in the way. Allow yourself to feel anger, or any other emotion you might instinctively try to suppress in the workplace. Then, think about how to express your desires in a direct, but respectful way. Use “I” statements to state your perspective without blaming the other person - for example, “I felt (your interpretation) when you (thing other person said or did).” Comment on the person’s word or behaviours without labeling them, and avoid the desire to call them rude or insensitive. And finally, keep your responses short. The less you say, the fewer opportunities you will have to revert to passive-aggressive communication strategies.

If you’re seriously committed to eliminating passive-aggression from your workplace behaviour, share your efforts with someone you trust, such as a co-worker or trusted manager - they can provide feedback on your progress and help you stay on track.