5 ways to deal with passive aggressive colleagues

Rachel Farrell, Special to CareerBuilder

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On just about every reality TV show, from "The Bachelor" to "Jersey Shore" to "The Real Housewives" (pick a city -- any city), we hear the same thing: "I don't like drama."

But disdain for drama isn't limited to our favorite reality stars. It's also apparent in the workplace.

Think about your colleagues for a second. Can you think of one who constantly gossips, sabotages information or makes snarky remarks followed by "just joking!" Maybe he says "everything is fine" -- but he says so with an attitude. All of these behaviors are only a few of the ways passive aggressiveness manifests itself at work. But why?

"The reason people are passive aggressive comes down to fear," says Frances Cole Jones, author of "The Wow Factor: The 33 Things You Must (and Must Not) Do to Guarantee Your Edge in Today's Business World." "Fear that they aren't qualified to do their job or that you might be outshining them or that there aren't enough raises and bonuses to go around."

Passive aggressive people tend show hostile behaviors but try to do so in subtle ways, most likely because they don't want to endure conflict. More often than not, however, this type of behavior is easily identified, which can lead to consequences for the passive aggressor in the office.

"The passive aggressive person may feel important for spreading the gossip or they seem competent for having the information in-hand. They get the cheap laugh but the consequences will eventually arrive," Cole Jones warns. "They will get a reputation as a gossip, a saboteur or a 'class clown.'"
Choosing not to participate in passive aggressiveness at work -- either by calling out a co-worker on his or her conduct and/or by not exhibiting such behavior yourself -- can also reap benefits.

"These people gain respect in the eyes of their colleagues and, most importantly, their behavior is noted by their C-level staff," she says. "They are reassured they have the potential to join their ranks."
If you have passive aggressive colleagues, Cole Jones offers these five tips to help deal with their behavior in the office:
1. Keep conversations factual

Try not to let feelings get in the way of the facts. "If a colleague is chronically late, for example, instead of saying, 'You always come in 15 minutes late,' try saying, 'The day begins at 9 a.m. I've noticed the last three days you have arrived at 9:15 a.m. Please arrive on time.'"

Some people feel that co-workers who shed tears during reviews or other high-emotion situations are passive aggressive. "If you have a 'cryer' in your office, be kind, but firm," she suggests. Say, "Why don't you step outside and collect yourself and we will continue this then?"
2. Keep a paper trail

"Always BCC (blind copy) yourself on important e-mails and documents. Follow up any in-person meeting with an e-mail stating, 'This is what we discussed. These are my action steps and/or deadlines for moving forward. Please let me know if you have any questions or anticipate any problems.'"
3. Don't engage or encourage the behavior

"If the passive aggressive offender makes an inappropriate or unfunny remark, rather than laughing it off, respond with, 'I don't understand what you're saying.' It's more than likely they won't have the temerity to repeat it," she says. "If someone tries to draw you in with gossip, say, smile and say, 'I'd rather not speculate.' Then remove yourself from the situation."
4. Don't allow others to hide behind technology

"If you feel the offending colleague is using e-mail or other technology to wage his war, send a note saying, 'I'd prefer to discuss this in person. What time works for you?'" she suggests. "You will be surprised how few people respond."
5. Don't be afraid to probe

Passive-aggressive types sometimes use "fine" in place of other choice expletives, she says.

"If you feel his 'fine' is taking the place of frustration or anger, probe a bit. 'I hear you saying 'fine,' but I have the sense there's some underlying frustration. Can I do anything more to help you understand the goal?'" she says. "Notice you haven't said, 'I sense you are frustrated,' which can make them clamp down even more."
Rachel Farrell researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.com. Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.



Last Updated: 08/02/2011 - 12:19 PM


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