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How to Handle Passive-Aggressive Comments in the Workplace


As the deadline for an important financial report is coming closer, you stay up all night working on it with a hope that your supervisor will be pleased with your efforts. When the next day you hands in it to him, he seems nice as he skims your task while suddenly saying ‘It’s very well-written, as good as Steve’s report’. Then, he asks you to leave the room and close the door. At this point, you might not understand what has happened but it seems that your supervisor has accused you of cheating on your coworker’s report.  

Have you ever trapped in such scenario?

Similar situation might happen quite often in a workplace and it gives uncomfortable feeling while you can’t quite put a finger on why. The worst part is when it leaves you hanging and you feel bad about yourself. In above situation for example, you might have understood what your supervisor implies about the report. “As good as Steve’s” can be called as a passive-aggressive comment.

Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, a therapist and author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, said that passive-aggressive behaviour is a way of expressing anger in a seemingly non-hostile way. This type of tone, behaviour, or comment can become a serious issue and even lead to chronic situation. It can create a toxic environment in the workplace.

You might have or have not dealt with such difficult experience. Bottled-up negative emotions such as anger, frustration, confusion and despair can unintentionally decrease your productivity at work and when it gets worse, you might want to quit your job altogether. Before taking an extreme decision like quitting your job, here are 3 ways to handle passive aggressive comments/situations.

First and foremost, you should understand your audience. Do not fall in anger too quickly and end up criticising those who showcase passive aggressive behaviours or comments. Chances are, they just have a bad day or other personal problems. For example, you bump into a coworker in a lift. You greet her but she is busy with her phone or coffee. She intentionally refuses to talk to you or others but you keep telling about your day. And suddenly she says, “Can you just stop talking, please?” while rolling her eyes. What you should do then?

Stacy Kaiser, a therapist and editor-at-large of Live Happy, says that many people who are passive-aggressive are not going to change just because you are bothered by it. So in this case, you better find out whether it is worth making an effort to talk to her or not. If not, it is better to mind your own business and move on.

Secondly, you should stay away and DON’T take the bait. Dealing with passive-aggressive people can be tormenting. Situations won’t be good to work with and you will likely put a frowny face the whole day. What is the best way to do then? Rather than confuse yourself with the situation, you better walk away from situation that does not please you.

For example, you propose an idea to your colleague and he responds, “That’s actually a decent idea”. You might feel displeased by him saying ‘actually’. ‘Actually’ can also be meant that ‘all your ideas are stupid’. But instead of being flustered and angry about it, you should just say ‘Thank you’ and continue your task.

Lastly, you should let it pass or talk in private. You can decide between let it go or talk further about it. If your boss or coworkers are being passive-aggressive towards you consistently, you might want to address the problem directly or simply let it be there for a period of time. Dietrich suggests you to talk to them in private if it does really bothering you. Tell them that their comments or words make you defensive and state the reasons as well. Dietrich says, “Make it about you feel and not how the person is approaching you. That tends to work.”

Suggestion. If it is happening frequently and a lot in your workplace, it is already a cultural epidemic and you can do nothing about it. So, you better find a better job with better environment. It will be better for your sanity and prevent you from adopting the same characters or behaviour.

Next read: Don’t Give Up Just Yet: 5 Things to Do After Getting Fired

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