Are you an HR practitioner looking for tips on handling passive aggression at work? If so, you’re not alone. Of all the non-assertive styles of communication, passive aggression is the hardest to handle. It is hard to pin down because it is incongruent. Typically, a passive-aggressive communicator sends a perfectly acceptable verbal message. Meanwhile, their voice tone or body language communicates disrespect or hostility at a meta level. You need to deal with this incongruence when giving feedback to passive-aggressive people. There are four steps involved in doing so.

Explain the business reason for addressing the problematic behaviour

Framing the feedback conversation as a business discussion is important. It minimises the risk that the passive-aggressive person will react defensively or take your message personally. Some phrases you can use to introduce your feedback on passive-aggressive tactics include:

  • I have noticed some behaviour which is impacting on team dynamics
  • Recently, I have heard you speaking in a tone which your colleagues could find offensive. As you know, the business has very clear guidelines on appropriate workplace behaviour
  • I am concerned that your behaviour in meetings is causing discussion to get off track

Acknowledge the feeling behind the behaviour

There are two main emotional triggers for passive-aggression: feelings of powerlessness and feelings of anger. When you acknowledge the seemingly difficult person’s feelings, you send a clear message that you respect their position and are willing to resolve any issues which underlie their passive-aggressive behaviour. You can use phrases like these to show respect and empathy:

  • Working with different personality types can sometimes be frustrating
  • Your tone gave me the impression you’re irritated when your colleagues ask you questions.
  • I’m wondering what is going on for you during team meetings? Are you worried about the changes we’ve been discussing?

Explore their perspective

This step can be tricky when you’re dealing with passive-aggression. If the employee feels defensive, they may deny there is a problem. Or they might deliver a long, rambling set of rationalisations which are intended to divert the conversation. It’s important to keep the conversation on track at this stage. You need to draw out the seemingly difficult person’s perspective, whilst keeping the conversation on topic. Some useful phrases at this stage of the discussion include:

  • What is your main concern?
  • What’s going on for you?
  • What do you want in this situation?
  • I understand there are a number of factors contributing to this problem. What’s the main issue?
  • Let’s go back to the key issue, which is your behaviour. What is prompting you to do/say this?

Set clear limits on future behaviour

During this final stage of the feedback discussion, your aim is to send an unambiguous message about how the ‘difficult person’ is expected to behave in future. You need to spell out exactly what needs to change, as well as how the shift in behaviour will benefit the business. For example, you can say:

  • When your colleagues greet you in the morning, I’d like to hear you respond with a polite ‘good morning’ rather than walking past them in silence. This will help everyone on the team work together comfortably
  • When you’re asked questions by less senior staff, I’d like to see you turn towards them and speak in a normal conversational tone as you answer. This will mean your colleagues receive the information they need to complete their work efficiently and over time they won’t need to ask so many questions
  • During team meetings, I’d like to hear you adding suggestions for improving ideas, rather than simply saying ‘that won’t work.’ This will help us address issues quickly, rather than getting stuck in long debates about what will or won’t work