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The word 'aggressive' overtaking the word 'passive'

Covert Ops: Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior Sabotaging Your Workplace?

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

Outright antagonistic behavior is an obvious threat to an organization. And because high-level conflict is so blatant, managers have a clear-cut path for dealing with it. But passive aggression is another story. This subtly hostile conduct is harder to pinpoint and address. Yet it can be just as destructive to morale and productivity as dramatic flare-ups.

And because most people aren’t confrontational, passive-aggressive behavior is far more common than overt hostility. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of toxic workplace culture.

Passive Aggression Symptoms

Psychology Today defines passive aggression as “a way of expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, indirectly instead of directly.” People engage in this behavior to get back at or undermine another person without risking a heated situation. Common examples of passive aggression identified by Psychology Today include:

  • Chronically “forgetting” deadlines or “misplacing” important documents
  • Postponing tasks or doing them inefficiently
  • Choosing not to take action that could prevent a problem from occurring
  • Withholding important information
  • Complaining endlessly and blaming others (often authority figures) for their problems
  • Undermining the authority of others through rumor, gossip, complaints, sarcasm, and innuendo
  • Embarrassing coworkers in public settings such as meetings or during presentations
  • Leaving notes, voice mails, or electronic communication to avoid face-to-face confrontation
  • Withdrawing and sulking rather than stating their opinions or needs
  • Using words like “Fine” and “Whatever” to shut down a discussion
  • Saying they’ll do things differently knowing they don’t plan to change their behavior
  • Ignoring emails and messages from coworkers

Leaders find dealing with such veiled conduct hard because people often do it strategically to avoid retribution. It’s even tricky to confront chronic passive aggressors because they often produce plausible explanations to justify their actions.

What Causes Workplace Passive Aggression?

Many leaders assume that passive aggression is an individual problem caused by specific employees. They point to people who struggle with assertiveness, fear conflict, or have been subject to retaliation for speaking honestly.

But even victims of negative experiences can learn to channel their feelings differently when placed in a positive environment. The root cause of passive aggression is often buried in the existing workplace culture.

Signe Whitson is the COO of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute and coauthor of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Relationships, Schools, Workplaces, and Online. She lists several reasons why this subtle adverse conduct thrives in work environments. Among them are some commonly held beliefs, including:

  • Emotions have no place at work
  • Conflict should be avoided
  • Outdated rules about hierarchy


For generations, employees have been coached that the workplace is no place for emotions. As a result, workers learned to internalize their feelings regardless of work conditions or circumstances or risk losing their jobs. But if leaders don’t allow their staff to air frustrations or have productive disagreements, people will find subversive ways to get their point across.


Most people avoid conflict because it can be stressful and depleting. Consequently, workers and management often try to maintain a sense of stability by circumventing arguments or refraining from giving difficult feedback. But leaders who avoid conflict and encourage their staff to do the same set the stage for problems to fester and prevent course correction.


Many employees have experienced a strong authoritarian work climate at some point in their careers. As a result, they resist speaking up or being honest with management. When confronted with what they consider unreasonable requests or asked to go along with decisions they disagree with, they often channel their responses into passive-aggressive behavior. Leaders can curb this response by creating a more open and supportive culture.

The Cost of Passive Aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior creates an unpleasant undercurrent in the workplace. But these negative “covert operations” do more than ruffle the status quo—organizations pay the price in multiple ways. As author and speaker Liane Davey writes in Harvard Business Review:

“The cost of passive-aggressiveness is high. At the business level, the negative effects include slow decision making, poor risk identification and mitigation, and stalled execution. On the team level, unarticulated but apparent frustrations erode trust, interfere with communication, and contribute to animosity. For individuals, the prolonged stress of unaddressed conflict takes a toll. Everyone suffers.”

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t occasional. For example, Go1’s 2022 Workplace Behavior Study outlined the prevalence of passive-aggressive behavior in professional settings and noted that it has increased since the pre-COVID era. They found that nearly two-thirds of employees witness passive-aggressive behaviors at work at least once a week; some experience it daily.

This subversive conduct leads to mistrust, anger, resentment, and ultimately a loss of employee engagement. According to Fast Company, the cost of employees with passive-aggressive behavior is over $370 billion in lost productivity each year.

Eliminating Passive Aggression

If leaders recognize some of the passive-aggressive symptoms listed above, they should take action before this subtle conduct takes root in the organization’s culture. They can address the problem by helping their people interact in ways that move things forward. Ultimately they can show their team the benefits of engaging in healthy conflict.

Establishing a trust-based environment is the basis for eliminating passive aggression in the workplace. Leaders can build trust by articulating, modeling, and coaching constructive behaviors that make employees feel safe and confident. Mastering these soft skills will go a long way toward preventing subversive conduct. They include:

  • Listening generously

This multi-faceted skill includes giving others our undivided attention, not jumping to conclusions, and listening to understand instead of silently disagreeing and then retaliating. We trust people who sincerely want to hear what we have to say.

  • Being straightforward

Leaders should make employees feel comfortable to freely ask questions, share ideas, or raise tough issues. They should encourage honest but respectful feedback and being open to diverse perspectives.

  • Assuming positive intent

When staff members give others the benefit of the doubt, they demonstrate that they trust them. People who feel trusted almost always live up to that trust.

  • Practicing blameless problem-solving

Employees can gauge the psychological safety of their workplace by observing how mistakes are handled. If finger-pointing prevails, they often retreat into passive-aggressive behavior. But leaders who promote a solution vs. blame focus, they create collaborative problem-solvers.

  • Sharing information

Leaders who are open about company goals, strategies, and tactics eliminate uncertainty among their staff. Workers are more prone to entrust their teammates with what they know in this kind of atmosphere.

People slip into passive aggressive behavior when they feel they have no other options to express themselves. Ultimately, this hostile conduct is self-defeating and damaging to the organization. But leaders who create a trust-based culture give employees the framework to develop healthy relationships that boost productivity, morale, and teamwork.

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