Story by Aditi Shrikant , CNBC, 5/24/23
Aco-worker who doesn’t pull their weight can be frustrating. But there is some comfort in knowing that more than likely, your bosses will catch on.
A passive-aggressive co-worker uses specific tactics that make it hard for management to spot their lack of initiative. They appear to comply with asks but will then resist following through. Because they are indirect about their thoughts and feelings, their intentions are not clear.
Stefan Falk, a leadership consultant who studies workplace psychology, says passive-aggressive behavior “destroys value, as well as pollutes the work environment.”
Colleagues who exhibit passive-aggressive tendencies are especially insidious to organizations because they can masquerade as productive. In reality, they actually aren’t interested in completing projects.
They are more concerned with being liked and creating an environment that they find non-threatening. Oftentimes this results in them shutting down progressive ideas and centering their own needs, and not the needs of the organization.
Here are seven traits of a passive aggressive person, and how to deal with them, according to Falk.
1. They are self-serving
A passive-aggressive person is in constant pursuit of approval. When they are completing tasks, they are not thinking about the result or the organization as much as they are thinking about how they are being perceived.
“They can, over time, be viewed as highly competitive as well as result-oriented,” Falk says. “But a closer look reveals that the end-game of all this is to serve the own self-interest, not the common good.”
2. They want to have followers
Being a follower or a team player is not of interest to a passive-aggressive co-worker, especially if it doesn’t serve their own interest.
“Rather than showing followership, they want to get it from others,” Falk says. “The need to create a sub community is strong in ‘The Passive-Aggressive.'”
3. They play politics
They use “street smarts” to get noticed by those who they believe can benefit their career, Falk says.
Passive aggressive people have “a strong and obsessive dedication of playing the internal political game the right way,” he says, adding that they often try to forge alliances.
In the same vein, they often try to derail others’ agendas, regardless of whether the agendas are beneficial to the organization as a whole.
4. They are concerned with things that don’t affect them
Because they are so focused on what others are doing and how that affects power dynamics in the office, they often don’t focus on their own work.
“The Passive-Aggressive is very concerned with things that are beyond his or her reach since these things are believed to potentially affect him or her in a negative way some time in the future,” Falk says. “They tend to fill his or her very often long workdays with activities far beyond the scope of the own work tasks; activities that have little to do with value creation for the company.”
Even if they look busy, they often aren’t working on tasks that move a project or initiative forward.
5. They don’t like their job
“The Passive-Aggressive does not enjoy his or her work,” Falk says. They might fantasize about leaving or even diminishing the work of the company which currently employs them.
Ironically, their insecurity often keeps them from seeking other opportunities. “The paradox with The Passive-Aggressive is that when he or she is approached by another employer the response will most likely be ‘no,'” Falk says.
“The reason for this is that The Passive-Aggressive often operates under the notion, ‘I know what I have, I don’t know what I am going to get, and chances are that it might be worse.'”
6. They look for fellow haters
The truism “misery love company” is especially applicable to passive-aggressive colleagues. They are constantly looking for other employees who share their grievances, but unwilling to find solutions that may remedy what they perceive as unfairness or ineffectiveness.
“Instead of uniting forces with these colleagues to improve the work experience, The Passive-Aggressive recruits these colleagues into his or her battle against the work community,” he says.
7. They don’t like new ideas
Because they are insecure, new ideas and knowledge threaten them.
“When faced with progressive initiatives from others, he or she looks for how these initiatives would harm the personal power base and platform,” Falk says. “The argument put forward against these initiatives often sounds like, ‘We have tried it before, and it does not work,’ or ‘It looks fine, although it’s not relevant for me.'”
This tends to make them unwilling to help others, Falk says.
How to deal with passive-aggressive coworkers
The best way to deal with a passive-aggressive colleague is to hold them accountable.
They will often derail team projects for their own benefit or tell management they completed tasks they actually didn’t. “If they said they agreed to do something but did not do it, call them out immediately,” Falk says. “If they said one thing to you and another thing to someone else, call them out immediately.
“You must make it painful for them not live by their words.”