Snide remarks, subtle insults, belittling in front of co-workers.
Unfortunately the defining traits of passive aggressive behaviour are not always left in our teenage years, and too often spill over into the workplace.
Executive Coach Ines Kretschmer helps a reader tackle the negative behaviour of a colleague that is slowly denting her confidence.
“Can you please tell me how I can handle a colleague who is consistently passive aggressive in her attitude towards me? I feel silly even writing this at my age (late 30’s) as I thought this type of behaviour was left behind me. I’m not sure why this person acts as she does towards me but it is really starting to knock my confidence.
This colleague started out by jokingly belittling my ideas in front of other colleagues, but has moved to leaving me out of important meetings and withholding information so that I am always the last to know things and need to go to her to ask questions. I don’t want to make a big issue of it, but I need to tackle it with her. She is generally nice when we are one to one which makes a confrontation all the more difficult.”
Thank you very much for your question.
As per your description it may well be that you are dealing with passive aggressive behavior, but it may help to understand that a person can be passive aggressive for different reasons. The person may be jealous or envy you for something. An underlying personality disorder could be the cause, or an issue or event outside of the workplace. This is to name just a few possible causes.
While the reason for her behavior does not exactly change the situation you find yourself in, and certainly does not justify the way she treats you, you might find it helpful to ask yourself what, in her case, the reason might be – especially in relation to you.
The reason I point this out is because there is a fine line: is it really passive aggressive behavior or is there an underlying issue/ conflict between the two of you that could be resolved differently?
If you have concluded that you are dealing with passive aggressive behavior, make it clear to yourself that you, or whatever you may have done, is not the issue here
For passive aggressive behavior the recommendation I would go with (and I have not invented this myself), is to ignore it if you can. The lack of attention is probably the best way to stop her. In addition, try to keep your contact with her at a minimum, and if you do have contact with her, keep it purely on a rational and professional level. The less you communicate or interact, the less grounds you give her to treat you the way she does and the less power you give her over you.
You clearly state in your letter that “she is starting to knock your confidence” and that you “need to tackle it with her”. This is totally understandable. We want to know why a person is treating us a certain way, and if we feel treated unfairly, we want to stand up for ourselves and confront the person who is doing this to us. We ask ourselves if it is our fault, if we did something wrong to try to get to the bottom of the issue.
But with a passive aggressive person this is unlikely to work. If you have concluded that you are dealing with passive aggressive behavior (caused by whatever reason), make it clear to yourself that you, or whatever you may have done, is not the issue here. Addressing it with her is unlikely to help because to a certain extend she already knows what she is doing. Whatever you do or say is more likely to add fuel to the fire than anything else.
Do not give her more room and influence in your personal and professional life than she deserves and is necessary
With regards to your examples above (that you do not receive the necessary information or are left out of meetings, so that you have to go to her to ask), the “ignore her” strategy might be difficult, but you can try to find ways around it. Try to get the information elsewhere or try to work on different projects so that you can follow the advice to keep the contact with her at a minimum. Try not to show her that it affects you, so that she does not find any reward in her behavior and will stop over time.
I understand from your letter, that she is your colleague, not your boss – so surely there are ways to get information or meeting requests from other colleagues? Do not give her more room and influence in your personal and professional life than she deserves and is necessary. Stay calm and professional and make sure that you do not let her affect your confidence – because as said before, if she is passive aggressive, this is her issue and it is her issue to deal with if she wants, not yours.
Now let’s briefly have a look at the other option: I did say before it is a fine line to determine if you are dealing with passive aggressive behavior or if there is a conflict or underlying issue that has not quite come out in the open yet. Is it only you she treats this way? If yes, it could be (not have to be) an indicator that there is a personal issue at play here rather than that you are dealing with a passive aggressive individual.
Take your time, listen, put yourself in her shoes for a moment and genuinely think through if she may have a point.
If she is not actually passive aggressive but cannot find another way to address her conflict or issue with you, you can address the issue and try to resolve the situation.
As you mention, when you are one to one she is generally nice. This gives you a chance to ask her, in an open and friendly way, if there is anything that you might not be aware of? You can ask her in this casual scenario if there is anything you did or said that hurt or angered her? If there are any issues with the way you work together as colleagues?
If she really opens up, then be prepared to listen and do not go into defence mode. It might be something you did not expect, you do not agree with or you think is irrelevant – but do not forget it is relevant for her. So take your time, listen, put yourself in her shoes for a moment and genuinely think through if she may have a point.
Then you can take it from there, but always treat the other person with the respect you would like to be treated with yourself.
I wish you the best of luck!
About Ines Kretschmer:
Ines Kretschmer is a Personal, Leadership and Executive Coach, based in Dublin.
Tel: 087 4149489
If you have a career issue you would like help with email the details to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will source a suitable professional to help. All correspondence will be kept confidential.