Tackle Passive Aggressive Behaviour

Understand the causes and underlying signs of Passive Aggressive Behaviour and, learn to manage your emotions and communications to tackle the issue.


8 Examples of passive aggressive behaviour

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Passive aggressive behaviour can be difficult to recognise at first. It is recognisable by the disconnect between what the person says and what they do. Passive aggressive people tend to express their negative feelings in an indirect manner, rather than state their disapproval directly to the person concerned. There tends to be a great deal of hostility associated with passive aggressive behaviour and a great deal of this tends to be derived from miscommunication, failure to communicate or the assumption that the other person knows what they are thinking or feeling.  From a relationship perspective, passive aggressive behaviour can be the most difficult communication style to deal with as you are not quite sure what you are dealing with.

8 Examples of passive aggressive behaviour

There are many different ways in which passive aggressive behaviour can be expressed. The following list, though not exhaustive, covers some of the most common examples.

1. Resenting the demands of others

When others make requests or demands of them, passive aggressive people will often view them as unfair or unjust. Rather than express their feelings, they will bottle them up and resent the other person for making the demands. They quickly forget that they did not have to agree to the demand, or that they could have voiced their feelings at the time that the request was made.

 2. Deliberate procrastination

Procrastination, the act of putting off that which needs to be done, is often a subconscious decision. With passive aggressive people, however, it is often a conscious decision. Rather than tell the other person that they cannot agree to their request, the passive aggressive person will delay completing the request until the very last moment, or later. This is aimed at punishing the other person for having the audacity to make the request.

 3. Intentional mistakes

Again, rather than say ‘No’, passive aggressive people sometimes find it easier to deliberately perform poorly at a task. The hope is that they will not be asked again due to the substandard work.

 4. Hostile attitude

As they often assume that others know how they feel, passive aggressive people tend to immediately assume that anything they do not approve of was an intended to be a jibe at them. For example, they may assume that their boss knows that they have a full workload. When he boss makes a request of them, they assume that the has something against them and wants to put excessive pressure on them. It never crosses their mind that they could point out to their boss that they have a full schedule and he would then ask somebody else to help.

5. Complaints of injustice and lack of appreciation

Everything is viewed as an attack on them. When something doesn’t go their way, it is seen as unfair or an injustice. It’s all about how the world impacts on them.

 6. Disguising criticism with compliments

At first, passive aggressive people may seem pleasant and warm. They often appear to be complimentary. It is only after they have left that you realise that the compliment was actually disguising a cheap jibe.

7. The last punch

Passive aggressive people love to throw the last punch. So much so, that even when an argument has been reconciled, they slip one last insulting remark into the conversation. This remark is often more subtle than the ones which went before but it is still an insulting remark which allows them to feel victorious.

8. The silent treatment

As stated at the start, passive aggressive behaviour is recognisable by the disconnect between what is being said and what is being done. Nothing highlights this more than the famous silent treatment. Silence generally signifies agreement but not in this case. When you are on the receiving end of the silent treatment, you realise that the other person is far from agreeable. They have a big problem with you and just to allow themselves the Pyrrhic victory, they have no intention of telling you what that is.

There are 2 other common versions of the silent treatment. One is to answer the question ‘What’s wrong?’ with ‘nothing’, when there certainly is something wrong. The other, which sadly I used to use myself, is to answer any question with just one word. This is intended to signal that there is a problem, without you having to say it. I used to pride myself on the complexity of the questions which I could answer with just one word.

Having trouble with Passive Aggressive Behaviour? Check out our guide to Tackling Passive Aggressive Behaviour.

There are a number of communication styles. Many times we do not notice them until a dispute arises. It is then that we really see the style which people are most comfortable with. In many ways, passive aggressive behaviour can be the most difficult to deal with as it is not always immediately recognisable. Also, the passive aggressive person can be quite child like (I say this as someone who used this style) and demonstrate an unwillingness to resolve any dispute. It is important to the passive aggressive person that they have the upper hand and they will use some ridiculous tactics to achieve this. The 8 signs of passive aggressive behaviour, listed above, will help you see where you or somebody you know is behaving in a passive aggressive manner. This will allow you to adapt your approach in an attempt to resolve the issue.

I must acknowledge the assistance of my friend Dennis Miedema, of Motriz Marketing, in developing some of the content of this post.

Image credit: Chance Agrella

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  • Kate Papas

    I’m so happy to see that through the years I’ve much changed my passive aggressive behaviour to good attitude. It’s a great accomplishment and far more a great release!

    • http://coachingpositiveperformance.com Carthage Buckley

      It’s nice to hear that you are making good progress, Kate. Keep up the good work.

  • http://catholiccoffeetalk.wordpress.com Marie Bernadette

    Excellent. Sums up all the things I’ve felt about dealing with passive-aggressive folks, but this makes sense concisely whereas I usually don’t. Hoping many see it!

    • http://coachingpositiveperformance.com Carthage

      Thank you Marie Bernadette. I often struggle to be concise myself.

  • Mejustme

    It is nearly impossible to deal with these kind of people. Especially if they are your ageing parent who will not receive help of any kind or want to control you the “child”, whos there to help because he needs to have help and will not allow any. Stubborn is underunderstandable, but P.A.B. is completely diffrent and therefore nearly impossible to open a targeted topic if the one with the problem wont be adult enough to discuss or solve the issues. Any issue.
    they just want it there way, which is not in there best interrest at 79. When the ability begins to slow, they just shut down very much like a child having a temper tantrum. Only silent style.
    So frustrating!

    • http://coachingpositiveperformance.com/ Carthage Buckley

      Thank you for coment.
      It is always possible to deal with these people but it can take time and effort. We must remember that they have usually been conditioned to behave this way because other people, and often us, have accepted this behaviour from them.

      It certainly can be difficut and you may wish to pick and choose your battles. When dealing with an elderly person, sometimes the issue may not be important enough for you to endure the argument. However, if the issue is important to you, there is never any reason to allow the other person to bully you into doing things their way.

  • Barbara

    Have you ever managed one of these people? “Oh did you want me to do it THAT way?” “Oh I spaced that out” “Oh sorry I missed the deadline” “Oh you think that my work is sloppy and careless? I feel attacked”

    I find myself trying not to act passive aggressively back because I feel so angry! I am trying to work with this person and I feel like I have to babysit. Then I feel like if i say anything to try and improve the behavior, I will end up in HR because she will think I am creating a “hostile work environment”

    The bad thing is when you have such a small team, when one person drops the ball, we all suffer. Her work is so substandard, yet when I try to have her revise something or rework something she just shoves it under the carpet. The other week she calls in sick the day before taking a vacation day and then “forgot” to work on a project before she flaked out. Who ended up doing it for her? Me!

    • http://coachingpositiveperformance.com/ Carthage Buckley

      Hi Barbara, there are many people who take that attitude when somebody raises an issue with them. If somebody is underperforming or, failing to live up to their agreements, you most certainly have the right to raise the issue with them.

      The important thing is that you must prepare for the discussion and you must stick to the facts. When you do this, you take emotion out of the conversation thus giving them less opportunity to play the victim.

      I would suggest you read ,my article on constructive feedback: http://coachingpositiveperformance.com/constructive-feedback-a-positive-approach-to-behaviour-change/

      and my article on preparing your argument: http://coachingpositiveperformance.com/prepare-your-argument-8-golden-rules/

      I hope that helps.


    • Jack

      Note: I spent a career of 23 years in the military, and came to learn the hard way that the most dangerous person on your team was a “lovable person” who failed to perform, i.e., a PAB. They can get you killed.

      The military has a great way of stopping this type of behavior… It’s a management style that only accepts results and immediately confronts a person who gives less than what’s needed. That is why, as a manager you cannot afford to be buddy-buddy with your subordinates. You have to be in control. This style begins in basic training (boot camp) and continues unabated through the early years of a person’s service, giving plenty of praise for a good job. Find your friends elsewhere, at least until a person’s performance has proven itself.

  • stacy

    Interesting and useful read. However, would be great if you could add a chapter of examples and specific types of comments used.

    Also clicked the Click here to get the Signs of Passive Aggressive Behaviour PDF and Worksheets. and nothing. :(

  • EJ

    This article is making me slightly afraid that I act passive aggressive without realizing it.

    • http://coachingpositiveperformance.com/ Carthage Buckley


      Awareness is the first step towards making a positive change. If you find that you are behaving in a passive aggressive way, you can take action to change it.

  • Jay

    This is backwards. It is highly likely that if your boss or co-workers are passive-agressifists, that they are in fact attacking you with sugarcoated hostility. Bosses or people in positions where they pull rank on a co-worker, are more likely to be control freaky and therefore passive aggressive, because that’s how they maintain their thunder

    • http://coachingpositiveperformance.com/ Carthage Buckley

      Hi Jay. If you think it is backwards, you should read it again.

      The article does not attempt to exempt bosses or co-workers from being Passive Aggressive. Anybody, at any level of an organisation, has the potential to be Passive Aggressive.

      No one level of an organisation is any more conducive to Passive Aggressive Behaviour than any other.

      Being a control freak and Passive Aggressive Behaviour are not the same thing.

      The examples provided are some of the most common examples of Passive Aggressive Behaviour. They may be exhibited by a boss, a co-worker, a subordinate or any other individual.

      If you read the 8 examples, you will see that a boss can just as easily be guilty of them as his/her subordinates.

      It is clearly stated that the list is not exhaustive.

      The reader is invited to consider the examples from a first person perspective as it is easier to understand when we relate things to our own behaviour and thinking i.e. we absorb new information by relating it to information that we already know.