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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Avoid Being That Passive Aggressive Person We All Can’t Stand

OK—imagine you just finished writing your first ever press release about an event your company’s hosting in a few days. Before distributing it to your team’s go-to reporters, you have to run it by your boss for her approval. You’re new to this role, so you’re super anxious to see what she has to say.

A little while later, you get an email back from her. Attached to it are not only her edits to the memo, but the company’s style guide, as well. (Oh, um, thanks?) She says nothing about it in her message, so you’re left wondering what exactly she’s insinuating and how you should move forward.

A little miffed by her vagueness, you respond with, “Thanks. Is my next assignment to memorize the style guide or something?”

What’s happened here is that your manager chose to be passive aggressive, and then you escalated the situation by responding in kind. This behavior often arises from a strong dislike of both conflict and being assertive. Instead of providing you with open and honest feedback, she left you feeling quite confused (and wanting to crawl under your desk). And, rather than you being direct and asking what she wants from you, you chose to retaliate with sarcasm.

Identifying people who act this way isn’t that hard; You can probably name a few off the top of your head. But, asks Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners and author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want, “What if it’s you who’s [being] the passive aggressive person?” Yes, you might not have started it, but continuing it may be making the communication even worse.

And I’ll let you on a secret: That’s not the type of person you want to be. So, if you find yourself heading in that direction, Bregman believes you can (and should) take action to avoid behaving this way.

For example, here’s how this entire hypothetical situation could’ve been handled better:

Before attaching that style guide, your boss could’ve first asked you if anybody had shown you the document yet. Let’s say the answer’s yes. It would’ve benefited both of you so much more if she’d just been direct and said something like, “I’ve attached the style guide to this email. Please see page 13 and reformat to match the sample press release there. We want to everything we put out there is consistent and easy to digest.”

Let’s say the answer’s no. Well, I’d say that’s a pretty darn good reason for using incorrect formatting, wouldn’t you? (Correct answer: yes.) This would’ve changed the exchange’s entire outcome.

But let’s say she still sent that initial email. Instead of responding the way you did, you could’ve said, “Thanks for your feedback. As I prepare the final version, is there something specific in the style guide you’d like me to refer to?”

When you’re frustrated with someone’s work or behavior, it’s important to try to understand the cause of it. You can silently fume all you want, but there may be a very good reason for why he did what he did. And, once you understand where the other person’s coming from, it’s important to both verbalize that and share what you’re feeling, too. Communication is a two-way street, and whomever you’re irritated with deserves to know why. Because, reminder: People can’t read minds (as far as I know). And, also, you don’t want to be known as the person who has an issue with everything “just because.”

Passive aggressive behavior leaves people with an icky feeling and is also extremely inefficient. Sure, confronting someone about anything isn’t all sunshine, daisies, and peanut butter cups. But the uncomfortable conversation you have will yield a much bigger payoff than if you decide to beat around the bush (again, and again, and again).

Photo of annoyed person courtesy of South_agency/Getty Images.