12 Most Table-Turning Ways to Deal with Passive Aggressive People at Work

12 Most Table-Turning Ways to Deal with Passive Aggressive People at Work

The term “passive aggressive” may be hard to define, but, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, “we know it when we see it.” And we see it quite frequently in the workplace.

What can you do with someone when they behave this way? When they refuse to do their tasks, when they’re sullen and make snide remarks, when they’re given to procrastination? What can you do with someone who plays the victim in their own little blame game, who won’t take responsibility, and who generally brings down the mood of all around them?

You can do better than cope. You can even turn the tables on the situation.

1. Stop trying to change them

It will almost never work, and will just annoy you. The depths of passive aggression are far deeper than the positive outreach you can provide to counteract it. You are not a therapist; don’t hold yourself accountable for being one. Instead, use the suggestions in this list as a means of coping.

2. Use exploding deadlines

Say to the P.A., “David, if I don’t hear from you before noon on Friday, I will do X.” That removes their veto power over the decision, and veto power is the source of a considerable amount of mischief that passive aggressives create. Plus, it forces you to think clearly through a likely decision.

3. Ask them for critiques of issues

It’s the one thing they’re good at, so you might as well use their perverse talent. (And it’s conceivable that if they see that they’re being recognized for being negative, they’ll begin to change. But, don’t count on it — see rule 1).

4. Plan on critiques

If you must ask them for advice, you will probably get critique — plan for it and move around it. For example:

You: “Should I do X, or Y?”
P.A. “They’ll both cause the following problems…”
You: “OK thanks, I think I’ll choose the X problems instead of the Y problems unless I hear a better idea from you by noon on Friday.”

5. Have a backup plan in place in case of procrastination

When they do, trigger the plan without hesitation — and without rancor (see item #2). Then ask yourself whether it’s worth doing this again the next time, or whether you can put someone else in that role.

6. Pick a stock phrase to use with snide remarks

Something like, “Got it, thanks for the insight!” Use this phrase every time, and say it cheerfully. The point is to both convey to the P.A. that you hear them loud and clear and are choosing not to deep-dive with them, and to remind yourself that you’re not about to let their problem ruin your day.

7. Play the elementary school teacher role

Remember, “Susan, do you have something you’d like to share with the class?” Firmly asking the P.A. to articulate their concern puts them on notice that you won’t tolerate gossipy behavior, and reminds others as well that work dialogues should be strictly public or strictly private.

8. Ask the P.A. for his choice

If the P.A. says both X and Y are problematic, ask him which he would pick.

9. Call out sullenness

If the P.A. is sullen or sulking in a group context, comment on it in a public but respectful manner. “Joey, you’re looking a little unhappy about this; anything we can do to make it better?” The intent here is to get Joey to either offer a constructive suggestion, or to own his own unhappiness. The latter is a perfectly acceptable outcome (and the most likely one); it removes you and everyone else from the guilt trip the P.A. is trying to lay on you.

10. Invite the P.A. in

If the P.A. is hanging around the edges of groups, not fully joining in but still lobbing in blame grenades to the discussion, invite him in. Say something like, “Mary, would you like to pull up a seat at the table and join in?” Be prepared for Mary to decline, and ignore the emotions with which she does so. You have said again, publicly, that the choice is hers.

11. Give the P.A. an occasional chance

P.A.’s often find it hard to conduct relationships with others. They are afraid, and become conflict avoiders. In a one-on-one situation, you can offer them ways to improve. “Susan, I notice you’re rolling your eyes when I mention the marketing department. Is there an issue there I can help you with?” If you say this in a direct, open and helpful tone, it offers Susan the chance to get better. If she doesn’t take that chance, it’s her loss; you did the right thing by offering, and you have lost nothing in so doing.

12. Don’t hesitate to fire the P.A.

Passive aggressives are not a protected class (like race, gender, age) under any legal statute. There is no law protecting people whose behavior sucks the air out the room, drags down others, and impedes forward progress for a team or organization. These are in fact the kinds of behavior that constitute good cause for firing. The longer you tolerate it in your organization, the longer you send the wrong message — that dysfunctional behavior is more tolerable than the success of the organization. That is rarely a message you want to be sending.

Passive aggressive behavior in a co-worker is not something you are going to cure; but neither do you have to be victimized by it. These steps turn the tables by erasing your victim-hood, and even — just possibly — bringing the P.A. back into appropriate business citizenship.

Featured image courtesy of Florence Ivy via Creative Commons.


Charles Green


Charles H. Green is author or co-author of The Trusted Advisor, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, and Trust-based Selling. He is founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, and has focused 100% on helping create trusted business relationships since 1997.

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