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How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive Co-Workers

by Carrie Stemke

Passive-aggressive behavior is a way to express negative feelings in an indirect manner. "There's a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says, and what he or she does," writes psychiatrist Daniel K. Hall-Flavin on the Mayo Clinic website. In the workplace, passive-aggressive behavior might manifest itself in an employee intentionally making a mistake on a project to make a manager look bad, or a supervisor postponing a colleague's important request because he's annoyed with the way she asked him. However indirectly it might be expressed, passive-aggression contributes to creating a hostile work environment. If you've been the target of passive-aggression, there are steps you can take to empower yourself today.

Use Humor

If the passive-aggression is on the mild side--say a co-worker ignoring your email about a project--try a little humor, writes communication studies professor Preston Ni in "How to Spot and Deal With Passive-Aggressive People" on the Psychology Today website. For example, Ni suggests that, if your colleague refuses to respond when you ask how he is, smile and say, "That good, huh?" Not only will your use of humor show your co-worker you're unperturbed by his behavior, it may even serve to lighten the mood, breaking the passive-aggressive ice.

Address the Negative Feelings

Unfortunately, you can't change a co-worker's passive-aggressive behavior as a defense, but you can directly address the negative feelings causing her to set her sights on you, says social worker Signe Whitson, in an interview with Inc. magazine. "Say, 'It seems like you're really angry about what's going on. It seems like you're really upset. Let's talk about it,'" Whitson suggests. This can be an especially effective technique if you're an upper-level manager dealing with an employee. The key is to stay calm and, if the employee or co-worker proves willing to talk about the situation, try to come to an appropriate solution.

Employ Assertive Communication

If you find your job requires you to work closely with a passive-aggressive colleague, practice using assertive communication when you're interacting with him, suggests therapist Andrea Brandt, in an interview with Huffington Post. This involves dealing with the co-worker in a manner that mixes your self-confidence with a clear willingness to collaborate with him. Think of it as approaching a work project or problem with a "win-win" attitude. "It's not just about getting your way, but taking the other person into consideration, as well," Brandt says. "Acknowledge the person and validate their feelings, which doesn't mean you have to agree with them."

Think About the Why

If someone at work, especially someone important like your boss, is treating you in a passive-aggressive manner, it could be in your best interests to try and figure out why, writes workplace expert Lynn Taylor in "Dealing With a Passive-Aggressive Boss" on Psychology Today. She suggests trying to see things from your boss' point of view. If you feel comfortable, you could also canvass your co-workers to see if there could be any other reasons for your boss' behavior. Taylor's suggestion isn't just limited to dealing with a passive-aggressive boss. Once you come up with an answer, see if there's anything you can do personally to make your work environment less stressful.

About the Author

A New York native, Carrie Stemke is an avid writer, editor and traveler whose work has covered many different topics. She has had a lifelong fascination with and love of psychology, and hold's a bachelor's degree in the subject. Her psychology research articles have been published in Personality and Individual Differences and in Modern Psychological Studies.

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