Dealing with passive-aggression in the workplace

Career News

By Sean Joyner,

Collaborative conceptions

Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others; and shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others. When one sets one’s heart on being highly esteemed, and achieves such rating, then he or she is automatically involved in fear of losing status.

– Lao Tzu

Architecture is a field filled with intellectuals and we often find ourselves in deep discussions about design, philosophies, and methodologies. More trickily, in the workplace, in the heat of collaboration, we present our ideas and often must defend or support them. This practice is fruitful and heightens the quality of the team, as everyone participates in this collective creativity. 

But sometimes you’ll encounter that team member who has to have the last word, who must always end up on top. When you present your ideas to the team, they seek to find fault in it, subtly showing how it can’t work, even if your suggestions are favorably received, they will secretly mope and resent that they did not receive the recognition bestowed upon you. These types become defensive if their ideas are challenged, they take it as a personal attack rather than a progression in the creative process. When their ideas do not win out, they suddenly become negative and unpleasant to be around, stealthily poisoning the poise of the group.

As the team continues forward based on your contributions, things seem to be going well, but then you begin to realize that you continuously experience friction with this other person. It always seems that your interactions are difficult, forced, or even perplexingly hostile. What is happening here? How do we deal with this prickly predicament?

Put on their shoes

Typically, in this context, we’re dealing with a wounded passive-aggressor. It’ll probably be a peer, similar in position and experience who has historically been the one with the “good ideas.” They could have been the hot-shot at school, “the kid” in the workplace, or even the “golden-boy” within their family. When someone comes along that challenges their self-opinion, begins to receive the recognition they once received, or seems to be rising to the heights they envisioned themselves rising to, their self-identity is threatened, and so they lash out.

We even see this in ourselves. He talks too much, we think, or, why does she think she’s so much smarter than everyone? But really, it’s just that he speaks up and we don’t, instead sitting back silently judging, or it’s that she has better ideas, and ours might not be so hot. 

If we take a step back and look at why a person might be behaving in this discordant manner, it’ll allow us to take a more compassionate approach and consider their position. Perhaps their month has been tough. What do they have going on at home? We don’t know. What if something heavy has been going on in their personal life? Maybe they have pressure from their family to perform in a certain way. Instead of focusing so much on our personal discomfort with someone’s behavior let’s start considering what they have going on behind the scenes.

Suffer fools gladly

Exercising compassion doesn’t mean that a person’s difficult behavior is okay. They are hindering the progress of the entire team by wallowing in their emotions. After all, it is about what’s right, not who‘s right. At all times, we should be preoccupied with the success of the group, not our own recognition or personal gain.

A mentor of mine once asked me if a 5-year-old did something immature towards me if it would bother me. Of course it wouldn’t, they’re just a kid, I replied. She then said that an adult who behaves immaturely shouldn’t bother me either. It echoes what Robert Greene talks about when he encourages us to “suffer fools gladly:”

In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short-term goals. It is human nature. Seeing this foolishness within you, you can then accept it in others. This will allow you to smile at their antics, to tolerate their presence as you would a silly child, and to avoid the madness of trying to change them. It is all part of the human comedy, and it is nothing to get upset about or lose sleep over. (Robert Greene – Mastery)

Think long-term

We often want to retaliate when we discover someone has some kind of “beef” with us. In all of our career interactions, we should focus on the long-term. Does fighting and becoming petty with this person help you in the long run? Or will it merely make all of your future interactions that much more miserable? Is allowing them to be right sometimes such a bad thing? There is a biblical proverb that says: better to be patient than powerful; better to have self-control than to conquer a city.

If we can focus on the larger goals of the group: to deliver a project to the client in as efficient a means as possible, then we can move past our internal emotions and help uplift the collective ideals of the team. It’s in this that the passive-aggressor becomes a minor obstacle as opposed to an insurmountable mountain.