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How to Deal with Passive-Aggression in Professional Settings

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at South Carolina chapter.

At this point, I’m sure we have all seen the posts that satirize what you say to a coworker compared to what you want to say. For example, instead of saying, “I’m right and here’s the receipts of your lies”, you say, “I’ve attached an email for further clarification.” While these comparisons are funny, part of the reason they are so popular is because they are true. We have all been in a situation where suddenly we have to deal with someone in a professional capacity who isn’t like us. Maybe they are too blunt. Maybe they are too sensitive, and you’re scared they will fly off the handle at any moment. Maybe they are your boss. Maybe they just act like your boss. While it’s relieving to poke fun at witty responses in an email or at the office, constantly reading between the lines can take a lot of energy. If you’re anything like me, it can take a toll on your mental health, too. This advice has been explained in the context of a work scenario, but it can also be applicable to friends, family and so much more! Here are some ways that have worked for me to handle passive-aggressive coworkers in a healthy manner:

Don’t address it

When I was first figuring out the best way to deal with passive-aggressive people, I often overthought every single interaction. In doing so, I put myself through immense amounts of stress, only to be wrong about the other person’s needs, feelings or intentions most of the time. I realized that I was driving myself crazy trying to think about another person so much. Often I was forgetting myself, including my own wants and needs. After realizing this, I started to let go of little interactions that likely carried subtext for the other person. I didn’t worry about whether or not someone was upset with me unless that person explicitly said so. I don’t confront someone I catch gossiping about me behind my back anymore because I realize that a lot of things can be said in the heat of the moment. If the gossip wanted me to know that they thought my project wasn’t well executed, I left it to them to tell me. Basically, I removed myself from the narrative and stopped making myself responsible for other people’s feelings.

This line of thinking seems counterintuitive. I also thought that trying to anticipate everyone’s feelings was an asset until I realized that I didn’t do a great job. At this point, I realized that the reason I felt so anxious and drained when thinking like this was because these were not my personal experiences. These were not my feelings to have.

Stay Composed

When working in a professional setting, it’s hard to express yourself while also being composed, especially when you’re passionate about your role. I am not suggesting that you swallow your feelings to accommodate the passive-aggressive coworker in your life. In fact, if you are trying to follow the previous advice, you may be wondering, “Why wouldn’t I just show my feelings without regard? How am I supposed to be professional or considerate while not addressing the other person’s feelings?” These are valid questions. When dealing with personal feelings, it is important to take time to completely analyze your feelings outside the heat of the moment. Consider if it is productive to address with your coworker. Ask yourself if you can see yourself feeling better after professionally expressing your feelings. Do you think that your coworker will take your concerns to heart, or will it just bring you more strife in the long run? In doing this, you may decide that it is not worth addressing directly, and you may decide to vent to a friend or partner instead.

If you do decide to address it, make sure that you are in the right mental space to accept how your coworker may react. To protect yourself from being hurt by a potentially negative reaction, make sure that you know what you want to say and that you are not being mean, accusatory or offensive. That being said, I don’t recommend trying to tailor your expression of concerns to your passive-aggressive coworker, or you may not being saying much of anything. You also run the risk of thinking yourself into a tizzy trying to make sure that they receive it well. The fact is that no one loves criticism or bad news. Different backgrounds can elicit different reactions from people when receiving this information. By accepting this, you are not accepting responsibility for the other person’s reaction.

Give them space

Give this person as much space as you can. The less likely you are to interact with them, the less likely you are to upset them. I stopped trying to go out of my way to make these people like me. People operate by their own rules and logic. No amount of compliments or cookies will change that. While avoiding them completely is not possible because of your job role, the less time you spend around this person, the less you have to worry about upsetting them and having them upset you. That being said, when you do address an issue, say what you want to say and then leave it. Do not harp on the issue. It will likely only upset you and the other person by bringing it up over and over again.

It’s important to remember that not all personalities work well together. This doesn’t mean that you or your coworker are bad people. You’re just different. If you’ve tried and tried to make a work relationship work with this person, I how that this article helps. Know that you are not alone in feeling confused and frustrated. I hope that this advice helps you deal with your coworker and makes your work life more enjoyable until the issue is resolved completely.

Abby Raffo

South Carolina '24

Family, friends and fun make me happiest! But, I also love dogs, writing and cooking. I am a strong believer in equality for everyone, no matter their background :)