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Passive Agressive Tendencies? You’re Not Fooling Anyone

This article is the ninth in a 10-part series on the topic of overcoming career-limiting habits.

The other day, while being decidedly unproductive, I stumbled upon a little gem of a website called PassiveAgressiveNotes.com. As you might expect, it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and sadly familiar. I swear I’ve seen some of these notes before…Like the one an “anonymous” officemate left in the break room of my old office:

“Adults pick up after themselves. No one here is your mother. Please do your own dishes. Thanks!”

I think there was even a little smiley face at the bottom.

Blech.

I absolutely hate these kinds of things. It’s so childish to leave a snarky note when you’re upset about something. If you don’t want to do the dishes for everyone in the office, don’t. No one is forcing you. If it’s a serious issue, call a meeting and create a cleaning schedule. If you have no other way of communicating except to make a sign, leave the insulting commentary off.

Leaving a note implying that your colleagues are acting like children only makes people feel accused. It’s like wagging your finger in their face. And, even worse, these kinds of notes are almost always left anonymously. Adding “Thanks!” and a smiley face at the end only adds insult to injury. You’re not fooling anyone into thinking it’s just a friendly heads-up message.

This is the very definition of passive aggressive. There’s an undercurrent of anger, but it’s handled in an indirect—and ineffective—way. And according to a recent survey, “passive aggressive” behavior is one of the top ten career-limiting habits, so it’s worthwhile taking a look at it.

Look, no one likes an openly aggressive person. I get it. So it’s easy to understand why people avoid confrontation and opt for veiled insults instead. But there’s a better alternative.

If you’re upset about something, address the issue face-to-face in a straightforward, professional manner. Don’t attempt to hide what you’re really feeling behind sarcasm or false politeness. Don’t hide behind your computer or an anonymous note. If you can’t say something out loud and in-person, it probably doesn’t need to be said.

It’s only natural that people will experience conflict at times in the workplace. We’re all human. Spending so much time together, we’ll inevitably find little annoyances in others. We’ll also have major disagreements and personality clashes. That’s to be expected.

When these things happen, you have two choices:

1. Let it go. If it’s something that’s not worth addressing, it should be set aside. Truly set aside. Release resentment and don’t dwell on it.

2. Address it. If it’s something that bothers you so deeply you simply can’t let it go, it must be addressed.

All too often, people try to create a third, middle option—one where they don’t let it go but they don’t address it either. Instead, they just let it fester. And that’s when passive aggressiveness rears its ugly head.

Truth be told, passive aggressiveness sometimes makes us feel better about the situation. We’ve all had that sick kind of pleasure from thinking, “Ha! I really showed him who’s boss with my snide comment. He’ll learn not to mess with me…”

But that’s counterproductive. The other person will always sense your true feelings but, without having a real, honest conversation about what’s going on, he won’t know how to fix the problem—and by that point, he won’t want to either.

The problem then snowballs and there’s a bunch of unsaid animosity that comes out in snippy emails and rude comments and eye rolling and gossip and anonymous notes. It creates a toxic environment that spreads like wildfire.

Now, I’m not saying that every little nuisance needs to be addressed. Pick your battles. But if you’re not willing and able to confront the issue head-on, there’s no backdoor route. You have to let it go. Holding on to the emotion, stifling it and letting it seep into your interactions indirectly is not the solution.

Dealing with Passive Aggressive Co-Workers

If you’re dealing with a passive aggressive person right now, I suggest opening the lines of communication. Try saying something like, “I get the feeling something is bothering you. Can we talk about it?” This might catch them off-guard just enough to get the truth out of them.

These people almost always hate confrontation, which is why they hide behind passive aggressive behavior. But hopefully you can get the problem out in the open and resolve it once and for all. Maybe you can even show them that confrontation doesn’t always have to be a horrible experience. It can actually be done in a productive and positive way.

You may have to try a few times, but eventually they’ll learn that they aren’t hiding anything. And if they want things to change, they need to be willing to just say what’s on their mind.

Photo Credit: Kitsune Tsuki (Flickr)

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