Career & Education / WFH / Work/Life Balance

3 Tactics I Use To Deal With Petty, Passive-Aggressive Coworkers

By Friday, September 18, 2020

I guess we’ve reached that point in the quarantine where everyone is fed-up. I get it — I’m there, too — but I’ve come to the realization that the frustration has produced a strange influx of passive-aggressive messages in my workplace. In an unprecedented time where all of my colleagues are working from home and none of us have seen each other in-person for six months, tensions are high, and it’s not as easy as it once was to convey expectations in the workplace. As of late, from e-mails to direct messages, the conversations I have been engaging in with my colleagues have been passive-aggressive, to say the least. This makes the at-home work environment more than a little stressful, but over the past weeks, I’ve come up with a few methods to deal with this.

For starters, trust your gut.

If you feel as though the tone of the e-mail or message is “off,” and this hasn’t been an issue in the past, chances are, you’re right – your colleague is being passive-aggressive. Now, before jumping to any conclusions, I’d advise that you wait to see whether this is a recurring pattern, before taking action. We’ve all had tough days where we send an email before re-reading it. Sometimes we end up typing the passive-aggressive phrases we’re using in our heads, that we may not necessarily intend to transfer over to others. More than likely, this is what’s happening with your colleague and you may see these messages cease after a week or so.

However, if the problem persists, my best recommendation is to not respond passive-aggressively in return, as this will only escalate the hostile situation, and will more than likely backfire on you. Instead, try responding politely to messages like, “not sure if you saw this…” with, “I did, thank you for the reminder,” or “I appreciate you following up on this.” In the end, being passive-aggressive is not worth jeopardizing your own professionalism in the workplace, especially if, like me, you’re one of the younger members of your team and you’re dealing with a more senior colleague in the office.

Next, remind yourself of your own workplace successes.

From my experience, passive-aggressive messages make me question myself, my own self-worth and often send me into a spiral of imposter syndrome. In times like these, it helps to remember what you have done right. For myself, I often make a list of even the smallest victories, such as congratulatory e-mails or positive feedback messages. This way I don’t forget even the most minuscule contributions I’ve made to my team. I bring out this list and update it during intense spirals of self-doubt, which inevitably occur after weeks of dealing with passive-aggressive messages from the same colleague(s). If you haven’t already started this document on your laptop, or don’t already have a folder of e-mails from clients or colleagues detailing your positive contributions to the workplace, I encourage you to begin documenting these immediately. Not only is it useful to look back on when you’re making a case for yourself with a promotion or salary raise, but it always helps to boost my mood and reiterates that I deserve my position and belong on my team, no matter what certain messages may insinuate else wise.

Finally, be prepared to confront this colleague if the passive-aggressive messages don’t cease.

Typically, your lack of engagement with this hostility will cause your colleague to back off on their own, but if not, I recommend that you be prepared to respectfully acknowledge the messages you’ve received. This can be as simple as a quick call to say, “I wonder if you are frustrated by my performance from the e-mails I’ve received over the past three weeks.” Now, more often than none, the passive-aggressive individual will deny that they are even upset. Still, I believe that calling them out will change the dynamic between the two of you, and signal that you are open to resolving any conflict that may exist. As such, the passive-aggressive colleague will change their tactics and begin to converse with you in a more honest and respectful manner.

However, if this behavior continues even after a brief confrontation, I’d say it’s time to take this issue to your boss. From my experience, passive-aggressive colleagues have a habit of cc’ing your manager on e-mails anyway, particularly since we’re all working from home. You can always reply directly to your boss, on one of these cc’d messages, and ask if he or she can put some time on their calendar to briefly chat with you about the project you’re involved in with your colleague.

In my own experiences, I approached a similar situation by reaching out to my own boss, expressing that, based on conflicting messages from my colleague, I’d begun to doubt whether I was performing up to standard, and as a result, I  wanted to go over the expectations for the project. In particular, I focused on delineating my duties from those of my colleague and requested that my boss send out a message to both this person myself, reiterating these expectations.

Sometimes, even this won’t be enough, and you may just have to grit your teeth and push through to the end of a particular project with this particular co-worker. However, I’ve always felt better when discussing what’s expected of me, and knowing that I’m doing my job, even if others may disagree. Plus, the added benefit of a message from the boss is that your colleague is also forced to reconsider their own expectations of themselves. Oftentimes that’s enough to compel them to back-off and focus on their own performance, instead.

Still, the bottom-line remains: dealing with passive-aggressive messages in the workplace sucks. This was true before the pandemic, but it’s almost worse when the lines between work and home are blurred. I have the utmost sympathy for anyone in this situation, today.

Keertana Anandraj is a recent college grad living in San Francisco. When she isn’t conducting international macroeconomic research at her day job, you can find her in the spin room or planning her next adventure.

Image via Pexels

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