We can all name a passive-aggressive person right now. Whether it’s the friend who takes forever to get back to your texts, or the roommate who subtly puts your dirty dishes on your bed, or even the co-worker who says hi to everyone but you in the morning.
Unlike the first two examples, the co-worker poses more of a problem because we can’t just distance ourselves from them.
Amy Gallo recently wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review laying out the best way to deal with this issue. Besides the obvious suggestions to not overreact, make a big angry deal about it, or behave passive aggressively yourself, Gallo shares author Amy Su’s advice: The most important thing to remember is that, often, it’s not about you:
People who routinely act in a passive-aggressive way aren’t necessarily complete jerks. It could be that they don’t know how to communicate or are afraid of conflict…There’s also a self-centeredness to it. ‘They make the flawed assumption that others should know what they’re feeling and that their needs and preferences are more important than others’.
Once you come to terms with the fact that that person might not be intentionally behaving this way toward you, you can address it with a clearer head. As Gallo suggests, focus on the crux of the problem, not the way it’s stated.
For example, if your co-worker huffs that you “Never listen to her anyways” in meetings, maybe that’s a signal that her opinion often goes ignored by others. Or, if your deskmate always tends to push your supplies off their desk, maybe they’re just struggling to find their own space in the crowded open office.
Thinking of it this way gives you two choices: You can just take action and do a better job at keeping your desk contained to just your desk. Or, you can say something. That doesn’t mean being confrontational, but rather conversational in the moment.
For example, the next time you see your colleague push a folder back on your desk, speak up.
“I didn’t realize that was on your desk. Sorry my stuff keeps spilling over, I’ll do a better job of staying on top of it.”
Or, in the case of the person who complains in meetings, you can say, “I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel that way, I actually really want your opinion on this.”
By acknowledging the problem without escalating it, you’re turning the situation from a passive-aggressive one to an open and honest one. And by doing that, you can set the standards of an appropriate and respectful workplace interaction. You’d be surprised how powerful your actions can be.