The modern workplace can bring together a wide range of people from different backgrounds and experience levels. In an ideal environment, everyone would get along and collaborate openly without any conflict. Unfortunately, in reality, clashes can happen regularly, even in small businesses with fewer workers.

Although conflict can be hard to handle at times, it’s imperative to know how to recognize the warning signs and address the issue head-on. If you have experienced de-escalation training, you may be qualified to speak to a passive-aggressive coworker or colleague. Otherwise, their actions may require someone else to intervene. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the top warning signs of passive-aggressive behavior and what you can do about it. 

5 Warning Signs of an Aggressive Coworker

Typically, aggression manifests itself as passive aggression. This means that instead of yelling or fighting with someone, a person may use a relatively passive tone to convey aggressive thoughts. 

For example, a passive-aggressive person may make backhanded compliments about a person. At first, the words may sound nice, but when you dig below the surface, it sounds a lot ruder or snarky. 

In most instances, it’s much easier to identify an aggressive coworker than it is to spot a passive-aggressive one. However, here are some key indicators of both types of aggression. 

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1. Hostile Attitude

Usually, passive-aggressive people tend to view others as competition, not collaborators. There are many underlying reasons for passive-aggressive behavior, but it often shows up as hostility toward one or more individuals. 

For example, one employee may dislike another person because of their work ethic, appearance, or their actions. So, they tend to direct their passive aggression toward that person, even while being nice to others. 

In other cases, a passive-aggressive coworker may treat everyone with hostility. Sometimes, they view themselves as the victim of perceived slights, so they lash out at others as a reaction to that perception. 

Again, passive aggression can be hard to spot on the surface, but the hostility beneath one’s actions is hard to miss. With an aggressive coworker, their hostility is much more overt and easy to witness. Either way, you should be able to use intuition to feel the underlying negativity. 

2. Consistent Retaliation

Often, passive-aggressive behavior stems from personal feelings, such as a belief in fairness and justice. So, when a passive-aggressive coworker sees something that goes against their belief, they may retaliate accordingly. 

For example, passive-aggressive people may give the silent treatment to specific individuals, or they only do so when they have to. Similarly, a passive-aggressive person may try to exclude others from social gatherings or meetings. 

Overall, passive-aggressive retaliation can be belittling and detrimental to a collaborative and positive workplace. Also, it may escalate over time, generating more negative feelings that could affect the entire team or the company culture altogether. For example, the conflict could begin with snide comments but then escalate into more overt conflicts or arguments. 

3. Defensive or Aggressive Body Language

A person’s behavior and body language are just as vital as the words they say. One of the best ways to spot passive-aggressive coworkers is to see how they are around specific people. Typically, passive-aggressive colleagues will be stiff and guarded when they’re around individuals they don’t like. 

By comparison, the same person may be more open and casual when they’re around friends or colleagues they do appreciate. 

It’s also important to pay attention to facial cues. Sometimes, passive-aggressive colleagues may smile and show an outwardly positive tone. However, their face (particularly the eyes) can tell a different story. So, if a coworker’s behavior doesn’t match their words, they could be hiding passive-aggressive tendencies. 

4. Sharp Reactions

A sharp reaction is targeted and precise, meaning that it’s meant to elicit a specific emotion. With passive-aggressive behavior, that emotion is almost always negative. For example, the individual may be trying to hurt the other person’s feelings with specific words. 

As a rule, passive-aggressive coworkers tend to be defensive when interacting with someone they view negatively. Sometimes, they may even lash out or say rude things to the person, especially when their emotions are high. That said, those who convey passive aggressiveness typically have strong emotional intelligence, meaning they usually don’t let their feelings override their behavior. 

5. Focused on Critiquing, Not Complimenting

Constructive criticism can be helpful in a workplace, and sometimes necessary. However, the goal of the criticism is to point out where someone can improve and be better at achieving a goal or a task. 

With passive-aggressive coworkers, criticism is not meant as an aid. Instead, it’s meant to inflict emotional damage on the target. So, one way to spot passive-aggressive behavior is to see whether the individual often critiques or compliments others. The more that they scrutinize the details of someone else, the more aggressive they are underneath the surface. 

How to Handle a Passive-Aggressive Coworker

Passive-aggressive behavior can be tricky to manage, particularly when you’re the target. The challenge is that the person’s words are often softer than their intent. So, during a direct confrontation, they can use the ambiguity of their words to derail any accusation of aggression or malice. 

Regardless of the situation, here are some tips on how to handle a passive-aggressive coworker

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Verify Their Actions

Again, the problem with passive aggression is that it can be hard to understand if you’re taking a person’s words at face value. Usually, the aggression and negativity are within the subtext of a conversation, so it’s hard to address any underlying issues. 

This problem is even more challenging when you’re interacting with someone via text-based communication. For example, what you may assume is a passive-aggressive email may actually be a misunderstanding. 

So, when trying to verify the coworker’s behavior, it’s best to look at how they interact with other people within the company. For example, if they are warm and open to others but cold and dismissive to you, that could be evidence of bad behavior. 

It may also be beneficial to talk to other coworkers to get their insight about the person. While you don’t want to spread rumors or create a negative work environment, you can discuss specific interactions or ask what other people think of that individual in general. 

Report Their Behavior

Whenever you encounter conflict with anyone on the job, it’s imperative to follow protocols. If your company has systems in place for reporting negative actions from a coworker, use those systems to your advantage. 

For example, complaints may need to go to HR or your direct supervisor. Usually, it’s best to report the actions before having a direct confrontation. Also, make sure you have sufficient evidence to back up your claims. 

For example, one passive-aggressive email may not be enough for corrective action. However, a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior over a long period could be more than sufficient for conflict resolution. 

Have a Conversation

Confronting a passive-aggressive coworker can seem stressful at first, particularly if they are relentless with their attacks. However, a simple conversation can sometimes be enough to relieve tension and allow for resolution to happen. 

For example, a coworker may be passive-aggressive because of what they heard in office gossip. In this case, they may have heard details about your personal life and are making judgments based on incomplete or false information. 

In other instances, passive aggression may stem from personal issues happening below the surface. Maybe the person is dealing with problems in their life that manifest as aggression at work. 

Overall, it’s imperative to understand that this conversation isn’t meant to resolve the issue. If you can talk through the problem, that’s great. However, it’s best to use conflict resolution strategies to reach a long-term solution. 

If nothing else, this conversation can potentially be used within a conflict resolution session to illustrate how their actions affect you.

Follow Up With Management or HR

Once you’ve gotten the ball rolling and reported a coworker’s actions, make sure to follow up to see what’s being done. Ideally, a manager or supervisor would step in and address the problem head-on. If that doesn’t happen, reminding your superiors of the issue can spur more decisive action. 

How Conflict Resolution Training Can Help With Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Even though passive aggression doesn’t usually manifest as shouting matches or physical altercations, it can still lead to a negative work environment. So, having comprehensive conflict resolution training can alleviate this problem in a couple of ways. 

First, a trained mediator can talk with the passive-aggressive colleague to get on the same page. By finding common ground and searching for a cause, the mediator can address underlying issues that may be creating outward aggression. 

Second, this training focuses on communication and collaboration. By working with passive-aggressive employees, a mediator can help them understand how to communicate better. From there, it may be easier to facilitate open conversations about how their actions affect others. 

Let Defuse De-Escalation Training Help Your Team Resolve Aggressive Behavior

Defuse De-Escalation Training is focused on fostering healthy workplaces for you and your employees. While passive aggression may not be the most destructive element undermining your business, it can still have a profound effect on everyone in the company. 

We can customize our training options to focus on core issues that relate to your business and your industry. We also offer online training and certification for added convenience. Contact us today to find out more.