Conquer Communication: Overcoming passive-aggressive behaviour at work

passive aggression spoken communication

Have you ever been in a meeting where a sarcastic “Sure…” throws the whole atmosphere off balance? Welcome to the world of passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace, where unspoken words can hurt just as much as spoken ones.

In this article, uncover different forms of spoken passive-aggressive behaviour and learn practical tips to help you handle these situations effectively.

If you’re also interested in avoiding passive-aggressive tones in your writing, check out our blog: Effective Communication 101: How to Not Sound Passive-Aggressive in Your Writing.

Understanding the roots of passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace

As an English language learner, it can be tricky navigating different communication styles, especially when passive-aggression comes into play.

Let’s explore some key factors that might contribute to this kind of communication style:

Cultural influences

It’s fascinating to see how cultural backgrounds can shape communication styles. In some cultures, being direct or confrontational is less common than in others.

These cultural differences can sometimes make people act passive-aggressively, especially in a diverse workplace where these cultural norms might clash.

Different personalities

We’re all unique in how we express ourselves, and for some people, assertiveness doesn’t come naturally. They might find it hard to share their needs or concerns directly, perhaps due to a lack of confidence or fear of conflict.

This can sometimes result in a passive-aggressive communication style, as individuals might express themselves in indirect ways to avoid direct confrontation. However, it’s important to remember that not all indirect communication is passive-aggressive.

The company culture

The atmosphere in a workplace also plays a huge role in colleague behaviour. Sometimes, if there’s a sense of unclear expectations, unhealthy competition, or lack of trust, it can encourage passive-aggressive behaviour. It’s often used (either knowingly or unknowingly) as a way to express frustrations or resentments without being direct.

The impact of passive-aggressive behaviour

Passive-aggressive behaviour can be like a pebble thrown into a pond – its effects ripple out, impacting different parts of the workplace environment, including:

  • Teamwork: Team spirit thrives on trust and open communication. However, when passive-aggressive behaviour comes into play, it can really throw a spanner in the works.
  • Communication: We all know that clear, straightforward communication is the backbone of any workplace. Passive-aggression can lead to a breakdown in communication, affecting individual tasks and the overall productivity of the entire team.
  • Morale and job satisfaction: Repeatedly experiencing passive-aggressive behaviour can be quite disheartening, potentially leading to people feeling frustrated and unhappy in their jobs.
  • Mental health: The ongoing stress of dealing with these situations can be exhausting, which can, in turn, have a negative impact on mental health.
  • Growth and innovation: A negative environment can affect creativity, as people are hesitant to share any ideas or take big steps for fear of receiving backlash or undermining comments.
  • Conflict: Ironically, while passive-aggressive behaviour is often a way to avoid direct conflict, it can often lead to bigger, more complex arguments and issues.

Spotting the signs of passive-aggressive behaviour at work

Recognising these behaviours can be difficult, but once you’ve mastered them, you can take steps to deal with them effectively and ultimately improve your work environment.

Here are some classic passive-aggressive behaviour examples that often come up at work.

Backhanded compliments

Ever received a compliment that didn’t quite feel like one? Phrases like “Wow, your presentation was… interesting,” or “For someone who has just started, you’re not half bad” are classic backhanded compliments.

They might sound like praise at first, but there’s often a hidden dig in there that leaves you feeling more deflated than elated.

The silent treatment

Silence can speak volumes, can’t it? When someone opts to use the silent treatment, they often use it to express frustration without actually voicing it. This can create a tense atmosphere, making it difficult to address and resolve underlying issues.


Ah, sarcasm – tricky isn’t it? In some cultures (like British, for instance), sarcasm is often used as a light-hearted way to poke fun at a situation. However, it can also be easily perceived as negativity.

Comments like “Sure, if that’s what you want to do,” said with a sarcastic tone, is classic passive-aggressive behaviour. It’s a way of showing you disagree with someone without being too obvious.

Body language

Non-verbal cues like rolling eyes or audible sighing can convey a lot without saying a word. This type of body language shows disapproval and irritation.

Withholding information

Ever felt like you’re not getting the full story? Deliberately withholding information or giving incomplete details can be a subtle form of sabotage. It’s a way of hindering someone’s efforts, without completely stopping them from doing their job.

Taking credit for other people’s work

Claiming credit for someone else’s hard work or downplaying their contributions is another form of passive-aggression. It’s a way of benefitting oneself at the expense of others, often leaving colleagues feeling underappreciated and undervalued.

How to deal with passive-aggressive behaviour at work

If you’re experiencing passive-aggressive behaviour at work, don’t worry! There are ways you can deal with it to help improve your working environment. Here are some tips:

#1 – Stay cool, calm and collected

It’s easy to get heated when faced with passive-aggression, but keeping your cool is key. Respond calmly and politely, resisting the urge to respond with similar negativity. Think of it as not giving in to the drama.

For example, instead of snapping back, try saying “I understand this might be frustrating, but let’s try to find a solution together.”

#2 – Address the issue privately

It’s important to speak up, but it matters how and where you do it. Choose a private place to discuss the issue, and use “I” statements to express how their behaviour affects you. This isn’t about pointing fingers, but rather working towards a positive resolution.

For instance, “I find it challenging to work effectively when I receive mixed messages, can we talk about this?”

#3 – Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is a way of letting the other person know what type of communication you expect and why it’s important. For example, “I think it’s great when we all get a chance to share our thoughts. Let’s make sure we’re giving everyone a chance to speak.”

You’re aiming to create a respectful and professional environment, not one filled with under-the-table remarks and attitudes.

#4 – Build bridges, not walls

Encourage an environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking their mind respectfully. This can help resolve issues before they fester, for example, try saying “Let’s work together on this, what are your thoughts?”

#5 – Seek support when needed

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the situation may not improve. In such cases, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Getting advice from your boss or Human Resources department can help you work out the best way to deal with the situation.

Outsmart passive-aggression with British Council English Online

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