Leaders, Are We Accomplices to Passive Aggressive Team Members?

Leaders, unchecked passive aggressive behavior in the workplace impacts the dynamics and potential success of teams. Those affected feel used, manipulated, and disrespected.

It is just as hostile as straight out aggression and can obstruct both morale and results. It erodes a key component of teamwork, engagement, and morale — trust.

Passive aggressive is less direct not less aggressive.

It can disengage employees from each other IF we allow it. How do we become accomplices to passive aggressive team members?

Leaders, Are You an Accomplice To Passive Aggressive Team Members Image by:korafotomorgana

The Pattern

Spot the pattern of passive aggressive behavior in order to eliminate its ruinous effect on your team’s success.

Passive aggressive team members will:

  1. Interrupt another team member who is speaking to us with a quick “sorry” yet no real acknowledgment of the other person’s presence. Or they will smile and say to the other person “You don’t mind do you?” They cover lack of manners with fake manners.

  2. Restate exactly what another team member just said as if it’s their own idea.

  3. Use subtle sarcasm against another team member and call it humor.

  4. Intellectualize instead of apologize. When faced with evidence of their bad behavior, they are known to say “I wonder why I did that?” instead of “I am terribly sorry.” Or they repeat their bad behavior even with apologies.

  5. Use neutral statements instead of true empathy. Effective team members support each other. Passive aggressive team members appear to support others. Facing a distraught team member, a passive aggressive would say something like “Yes, it is difficult, isn’t it?” A supportive team member would more likely say, “How can I help? Let’s look at it and find a solution.”

  6. Hold others to a very high standard of behavior and call them on it publicly. “Well you wouldn’t want to be known as the one who didn’t help out, would you?”

  7. Use apparently logical reasons to undermine other’s success — and then ask them if they mind. Example: As requested, a team member prepared a presentation for the next team meeting on a technology they were developing for all to use. The passive aggressive team member monopolized the meeting with discussion and at the end of the meeting said: Oh we won’t have time for your presentation today. Does it bother you?”

The Impact

Mistrust, anger, resentment, and disengagement are the most damaging impacts of passive aggressive behavior on the organization and its results. If we as leaders do nothing to prevent it or cure it, team members begin to mistrust us as well.

Strong driver type leaders become an accomplice to this behavior with their sole focus on results. They dismiss outcries of passive aggressive behavior with: “Just focus on the work.”

High amiable type leaders, who love harmony in relationships, often dismiss passive aggressive “Oh they didn’t mean anything by it.” They are now accomplice to this damaging behavior.

Strong analytic leaders may overlook the passive aggressive behavior claiming they don’t have enough data to prove it’s happening. They become accomplices through the misnomer that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. A ridiculous tenet.

High expressive leaders are so connected into the exchange of information they become accomplices by not seeing the manner of expression.

The Solution

  1. Check our own behavior. Ensure that you are not passive aggressive. Team members model the leader.

  2. Ask yourself, am I afraid of conflict? That doesn’t mean that you are passive aggressive yet you are at a high risk of not addressing it. Get coaching on overcoming your fear of conflict and you become a far better leader!

  3. Have the entire team develop a list of high performance team member behaviors. Clear expectations of behavior are one way to develop a culture of positive interaction and give everyone a mechanism for discussing negative behaviors.

  4. Provide training on how to disagree without being disagreeable. A team’s diverse opinions are its strength. The way they communicate is its lifeblood.

  5. Illustrate the difference between diplomacy and passive aggressive. Passive aggressives often mislabel their subtle behavior as tact when in truth it’s venom.

  6. Be willing to spot and address the behavior even in a top performer. Singular results only contribute a portion of success. Behavior impacts morale which accounts for much of success.

  7. Teach and use engaging meeting management techniques. Stop bad behavior in it’s tracks so all will fully engage as they feel valued and respected.

  8. Watch for and dismantle cliques. Not all cliques are passive aggressive. Yet many of them are and in any case are harmful to a positive team culture.

As leaders we have an organizational responsibility to engage team members for positive morale and highest quality results.

We also have an ethical responsibility to create a non-hostile environment where all receive basic respect and an opportunity to fully contribute.

Passive aggressive behavior is a virus that can infect the team and kill results. Let’s prevent it or at least be the cure.

Question: What other passive aggressive behaviors have you spotted and how have you handled them?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Post: Leaders, A Pain Free Journey to Employee Accountability

©2012 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please first email info@katenasser.com for terms of use. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on employee engagement, leading change, teamwork, and customer service & experience. Kate turns interaction obstacles into business success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

15 Responses to “Leaders, Are We Accomplices to Passive Aggressive Team Members?”

  1. scott_elumn8 says:

    Great post Kate. This is not a one time issue either. Each time the team changes, new people come in or something significant impacts the group you may have to cycle through mini versions of this over and over. It’s a tough leadership challenge. Sometimes people are very very good at riding the line and using subtle words that make it hard to call out. Can do a lot of damage.

    If the team is really united around a goal and have a bigger yes to focus on then working through this can be a bit easier. Sometimes I have had to have those one on one “crucial conversations” or have been guilty and needed someone to call me out. It’s important people have permission to do that.

    To help us all communicate better we read the book and participated in a workshop together, (Crucial Conversations). The team has definitely handled it better since then but during a recent organizational change some people have fallen back into their “darker selves” that often emerge when they allow themselves to drift into fear and survival mode. Excellent topic and a timely reminder.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Quite true Scott. It is hardly a one time issue. Communication is the lifeblood of teams and often it needs to be refreshed with reminders to keep it healthy.

      I appreciate your suggestions to all the read of this post to have “crucial conversations” and hope you will visit here at Smart SenseAbilities(tm) again and lend your insights.

      Warmest regards and thanks,

  2. Hi Kate,
    Love this post! As I read through it I could not help but remember some of what I learned from Edwin Friedman’s writings such as Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. As leaders, we have a responsibility to not serve as complicent host organisms for those in our ranks that fail to self regulate. As you state, passive agrssive behavior is a virus and can indeed spread and will become invasive of others space. As Friedman point out, it is capacity of the well-differentiated leader to serve as the immune system of the organization. Not only is this a great read for all “leaders”, I think many will find some of thre answers they have been looking for in these pages.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Dear Philip,
      So pleased that you visited and added your perspective. I love the Friedman quote you offered: “it is capacity of the well-differentiated leader to serve as the immune system of the organization.”

      As leaders have become less directive (a good thing) they have abdicated some of their other responsibilities like “being the immune system” and that is not a good thing.

      All the best to you and thanks again for sharing with me and all who read this post!

  3. Jesse Stoner says:

    Hi Kate,

    This is an excellent post and I especially like the solutions you provide.

    It can be difficult to recognize passive-aggressive behavior because it’s often masked or twisted to make it look like you’re in the wrong. One of the best gauges is your own emotional reaction. If someone says, “Can’t you take a joke? I was just kidding,” and you don’t feel like laughing, quite likely they are being passive aggressive. Other examples of passive aggressive behavior are being chronically late, withholding important information, or agreeing to do something and then doing the opposite.

    I think you’re right to ask if we are accomplices. Either responding emotionally or ignoring the behavior keeps the pattern in motion. I find the best way to deal with it is to describe the behavior and the consequences of continuing it. And then be prepared to follow through with the consequences.

    I came across this article a couple of years ago in Psychology Today “10 Common Passive-Aggressive Phrases to Avoid” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/passive-aggressive-diaries/201011/10-common-passive-aggressive-phrases-avoid. I had saved it because I liked it and thought you might appreciate it also.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Jesse,
      I read the Psych today article you noted. Although I don’t agree with all the 10 they include, many are right on target and are a great addition to this discussion.

      Even more than that, the “just kidding” snip that you added here is quite common and I am thankful you have added it to this list.

      Many thanks for your time and perspective on this.

      Always glad to receive your comments!

  4. Hi Kate,
    Another classic passive aggressive behavior in teams is to give verbal and non-verbal cues of disagreement or disapproval (“I’m not sure I love that” or “I think it could be better) but without offering any alternative or productive suggestions.
    Nice ideas for solutions!
    Guy Winch

  5. Khalid says:


    I’m amazed by the way you find such small tiny points which have huge impact on people! I admire your writeups 🙂

    “Passive aggressive behavior is a virus that can infect the team and kill results.”

    Totally agree


  6. Peggy Fitzpatrick says:

    Really insightful post Kate.

    Passive aggressive behavior does cause many problems. As a leader it is important to look at the whole picture and deal with the issue, not ignore it.

    Your summary on this post is stellar.

  7. Stunning post, Kate! I think there are a million of passive-aggressive behaviors, but they all have the same tension and feeling of threat. See this beautiful box; oops, there’s a snake in it. In working with folks with this habit, there’s often a denial of intent (“But I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody”), kind of like “I just pointed the gun at them to scare them.”

    It’s all about helping others visit the impacts of their behavior, and understand those impacts, and also helping them know that someone they respect and trust sees more in them than such behavior. Sometimes “passive-aggressive” behavior is a clue to “I feel hurt” or “I feel vulnerable” or “I need a win of some kind” and the passive-aggressive stuff is just a first strike to make sure no one can see how much private anxiety there really is. But as managers we’re not therapists and can’t probe too far unless a person is ready to talk about it on their own. Your suggestions are totally right on, and may help someone come a lot closer to realizations on their own. Fantastic!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Dan, your point “They need a win of some sort” is so true. In fact, many passive aggressives need to feel that they are constantly winning hence the passive nature. They get to live that perception without the reality of how they hurt others.

      I appreciate your expansion on this topic. Your remarks so often add depth/breadth to the topics I write about.

      Warmest regards and thanks,

  8. Guy Farmer says:

    Great post Kate. I especially like the idea of leaders dealing with passive-aggressive behavior by modeling positive behaviors and providing training opportunities. Passive-aggressive behavior often happens in the workplace because it’s unwittingly permitted.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Ooh Guy … nice phrase “unwittingly permitted”. So key to be aware of it and model a more positive trust building approach.

      Many thanks from one team builder to another. Always glad to have your professional insights here.


  9. superb post Kate. I’m a pastor and we see this all the time in church leadership!

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