How to handle passive-aggressive employees

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Employees find countless ways to express their anger in the workplace but passive aggression may be one of the most harmful – that’s the warning from one expert who says indirect hostility can quickly poison company culture while putting a serious dent in productivity.

“In many workplace settings, where adults spend the majority of their waking hours and corporate hierarchies inhibit direct expression of feelings, the passive aggressive employee is able to sabotage everything from individual deadlines to department morale to organisational productivity,” says Signe Whitson, COO of the LSCI Institute.

“For these reasons, it is critical that leaders be able to recognise passive aggressive behaviours in the workplace before they negatively impact output and efficiency,” she adds.

Whitson – who recently penned ‘The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behaviour’ – says a passive aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses this underlying anger through temporary compliance.

“Though he verbally agrees to a task, he behaviourally delays its completion by procrastinating, ‘forgetting’ important deadlines, ‘misplacing’ documents, or arriving late,” explains Whitson.

“Leaders who recognise this as a pattern of behaviour, and understand that this pattern is a hallmark of passive aggression, can be effective in thwarting temporary compliance when they consistently set crystal clear expectations for employees – preferably communicated face-to-face and in writing – and fairly enforce these expectations,” she continues.

Whitson – who is also an educator on bullying and crisis intervention – says a passive aggressive employee often feels it is more important to express their covert hostility than to maintain their appearance of professional competence.

“He may use intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way,” she tells HRM. “To protect a workplace from the passive aggressive saboteur, leaders should look out for employees whose work is consistently at or below minimum standards, who insist ‘no one told me,’ to justify their inaction, and who personalise any confrontations from authority, playing up their role as victim.”

However, it’s not always easy to identify and address the behaviour – by the very nature of their covert acts, passive aggressive employees are skilled at evading the long arm of the workplace law, warns Whitson.

“Unchecked, a compliant rule-breaker can have a major impact on an organisation’s productivity and morale,” she tells HRM. “When employers understand the warning signs and quickly recognise passive aggressive patterns, they can protect their workplaces from being the unwitting victim of this ideal office crime.”

No matter how frustrating their behaviour may be, Whitson says employers must be careful to remain calm and collected when handling a passive aggressive employee.

“It is not unusual for a leader to lash out at a passive aggressive person; after all, the covertly hostile employee has been consistently acting out anger themselves,” she says.

“The key is—the passive aggressive person has been doing it in controlled, hidden, indirect ways that remained below the radar of casual observers whereas when leaders lash out, they tend to do so more impulsively, publicly, and unprofessionally.  In the end, the leader appears out of control while the passive aggressive person watches his outburst with calm satisfaction—and perhaps even an angry smile on his face.”

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