How to deal with passive aggressive behaviour

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Is there someone in your workplace who frequently makes you seethe without raising their voice or even doing that much? Passively aggressive behaviour can be infuriating, but also difficult to spot, which makes it even harder to call out. Unlike blatant aggression which would warrant an official complaint, it can be as subtle as an eye-roll or loud sigh which speaks volumes but can easily be denied or attributed to something else.

Other examples of passive aggressive behaviour include raised eyebrows to convey irritation, disagreement or ridicule, giving someone side-eye or the classic, “whatever!” to convey, on the surface, that the person doesn’t mind, but that underneath they’re fuming. There’s also guilt-tripping such as, “yes, I’d be delighted to finish that report for you, even though I’ve worked ’til midnight every day this week…”

Passive aggressive behaviour is a potent blend of the fight and flight response we have to threat. Our impulse for fight leads to aggression; our impulse for flight leads to passivity. It’s like an iron fist in a velvet glove. You receive a punch, but it feels a bit like you’re also being stroked. What drives passive aggressive behaviour is often a desire for attention that’s being unfulfilled. The person either doesn’t know how to command respect or be noticed for the right reasons, or they don’t have the skills to express themselves confidently. As a result they feel undervalued and consequently act out. It’s a vicious coping mechanism for insecurity. But this is not your problem.

Everyone has a bad day every now and then but if the behaviour persists, keep a log of all the times it happens. Be specific about what they did, what triggered it and the impact it had. When you bring it up, do so in private and talk about how their actions have made you feel rather than who they are as a person. Avoid being inflammatory. To stop yourself getting over-emotional, stick to the facts.

To avoid any misunderstandings, clarify roles and responsibilities so there are minimal grey areas around who is responsible for what. If it’s obvious a colleague is taking over your role, taking credit for your work or muscling in on your responsibilities, collate examples and then have a one to one meeting with them to highlight your concerns.

Be careful about sharing your concerns with colleagues unless it’s someone you trust to keep it to themselves – it’s easy for this to become the latest water cooler topic that everyone’s talking about. These situations can so easily be misconstrued and if it comes to it, you want to remain professional and not the subject of the latest office gossip. If the problem persists, discuss the matter with your boss privately and agree next steps.

Check out my other blogs on assertive communication and how to get your voice heard.

To find out more about workplace assertiveness and gravitas do contact me at or go to

2 Replies to “How to deal with passive aggressive behaviour”

  1. Great article Antoinette. I too, like many have been the target of passive aggressive behaviour. Your advice is sound – sometimes it can be difficult to put into practice when emotions get involved! I won’t claim to have always dealt with it well (!) but I do recognise it’s an issue for the other person and rarely about me. Sad but true

    1. Thank you Jackie. You’re right, it’s not easy to respond in the best way when we’ve been triggered, especially if our default is passive aggressiveness. However when we choose courage and honesty over resentment and fudging, we do ourselves justice and we do the other person a favour, because they at least then know where they stand 🙂

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