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Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace Essay

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Updated: Jul 12th, 2020


While some workplace conflicts are expressed openly and are therefore obvious for all, others are expressed in a subtle manner. This subtle expression is known as passive-aggressive behaviors and it is the most difficult to recognize and deal with since the perpetrator can always deny it. This paper will present a case study of passive-aggressive behavior at work in order to demonstrate what this behavior entails and how it might affect others in the workplace. An evaluation of how to effectively cope with such situations will then be given.

Case Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

SoftTech Inc is a fictitious, small software development company located in the US. The company engages in the development of novel applications for its clients. The project director has decided to develop a new mobile application to assist people to schedule their payments. Three of the staff at the company, Joanne, Chris, and Mike have been assigned to perform this task. Chris has been chosen to head the team and ensure that the end product is delivered on time. All the chosen members of the team are competent. Joanne is a very capable programmer but she is soft-spoken and avoids confrontational situations where she often lets her colleagues have their way as opposed to making her opinion heard.

Joanne, Chris, and Mike arrange a meeting to discuss how the project will take place. On the day of the meeting, Joanne arrives late and remains silent throughout the whole meeting. When asked to provide input on the project, she acts confused and appears not to have anything to say. In subsequent meetings, Joanne is habitually late and appears distracted by something on her computer instead of following what Chris and Mike are saying. Joanne agrees with all the proposals made by her teammates but she never shows any support for the previously agreed on course of action and often comes up with implementations that are contrary to agreed on specifications.

Joanne has also adopted the habit of not providing assistance even when she has superior knowledge and skills on the subject being discussed. She then complains about the lack of progress to other employees in the company. She is constantly deriding Chris’ leadership and Mike’s competence in the project. The project progress is, therefore, suffering due to her lack of support and to make matters worse, she is quick to pass judgment on Mike and Chris concerning what they did wrong.

Specific Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

Joanne is guilty of engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. Acting confused and like you do not understand what is going on even when this is not the case is a sign of passive-aggression (Hankins, 2008). Joanne also demonstrates passive-aggression by being habitually late and demonstrating little concern or interest in what is being said or done by Mike and Chris. Joanne does not deal directly with concerns about her teammates but instead complains behind their backs.

Another demonstration of passive-aggressiveness is in Joanne’s failure to express the concerns she has about the project or provide assistance that might be crucial for the success of the project. Joanne is also quick to criticize after the actions have taken place and go on to elaborate on what was should have been done and what was done wrong (Hankins, 2008). This is in spite of the fact that the other team members often request her input before the actions have been done and receive none.

Impacts of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors on Others

In spite of their subtlety, passive-aggressive behavior can cause real problems in the workplace. By being inefficient on purpose, Joanne is decreasing the productivity of the group. The project is not going to be completed in time due to Joanne’s inefficiency and this will hurt the entire company. Chris and Mike are always frustrated and angered by Joanne’s behavior which reduces their productivity. They are not able to work collaboratively with her and this reduces the chances that the project will succeed. Chris and Mike are considering approaching the project manager to have Joanne removed from the team since the project is suffering because of her.

The passive-aggressive behavior will stir up divisiveness and gossip due to the negative remarks made concerning Mike and Chris to other employees. The comments will hurt Mike and Chris since they might be viewed as incompetent due to Joanne’s malicious rumors.

Impacts of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors on Organizational Goals

The organizational goal of increased productivity will be hurt by passive-aggressive behavior. In most cases, passive-aggressiveness will result in defensive communication in the organization. Such behavior may be detrimental to the organization’s performance since it can lead to people at lower organizational levels failing to send bad news up the organization (Lacey, 2012). This information might be sensitive and critical to organizational performance and its loss might have dire repercussions for the organization.

The organizational goal of improving the work environment for employees will also be affected by passive-aggressive behavior. This is because the behavior will lead to the creation of barriers between people who are supposed to be working together. Barriers will result in a lack of concern for each other’s wellbeing and self-serving behavior. Creating a cordial work environment where employees treat others with respect might therefore not be possible due to passive-aggression.

Reacting to the Situation

The first step to reacting effectively is to identify the passive-aggressive behavior. Once the parties involved have identified this behavior, they can take up steps to deal with it. Self-awareness is essential in coping with passive-aggressive people in the workplace. When the people being subjected to passive-aggressive behavior have self-awareness, they are more likely to maintain their emotional balance when they know that the other person might be trying to hurt them or get their own way.

Passive-aggressive behavior is reinforced when the victims suffer from the guilt, offer sympathy or appear angry, hurt or frustrated by the behavior. By being alert to passive-aggressive behavior, a person can avoid getting drawn into this trap and hence force the person to take ownership of their feelings. This will increase the likelihood of the perpetrator stopping their manipulative passive-aggressive behavior since they will not be getting the results they want.

One of the reasons why people resort to passive-aggressive behavior is because they are not able to engage in assertive communication. The behavior can, therefore, be mitigated by encouraging assertive communication that promotes interpersonal behavior by maximizing the satisfaction of the person while all the while considering the needs of other people (Lacey, 2012). Assertion results in the constructive resolution of conflicts in an amicable and respectful environment. Employing assertiveness will help diffuse the passive-aggressive behavior and also provide the individuals involved with an alternative and effective mechanism to resolve any work conflict.


This paper set out to present a case study of passive-aggressive behavior at work and offer an evaluation of how to effectively cope with such situations. The paper documented how passive-aggressive behavior is used in the case involving Joanne, Mike, and Chris. This behavior impeded the progress made by the team in their project. An effective reaction to the situation would lead to increased productivity and increase the chances of project success.


Hankins, G. (2008). Prescription for Anger: Coping With Angry Feelings and Angry People. London: Barclay Press.

Lacey, H. (2012). Powerful Win Win Solutions: A Practical Toolkit for Resolving Conflict in the Workplace. NJ: Author House.

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