Managing the Passive-Aggressive Employee

Managing a passive aggressive employee

We all know passive-aggressive employees. They are consistently late—for meetings, with assignments, even for social engagements—and tend to procrastinate and “forget” to complete a task or deadline. They may even be so bold as to ask their manager to send them reminders to get something done. Now that is audacity! No matter what “tricks” are put in place to manage their passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., scheduling them to arrive 30 minutes early, telling them a deadline is due two weeks before the actual due date, etc.), any possible gains they make quickly erode and they revert to their former ways. In addition, passive-aggressive employees can be characterized as being closed to new ideas and stubbornly holding onto their own point of view, even in the presence of data to the contrary. They may play clueless instead of defending their point of view, but the closed-mindedness remains. These manipulative patterns of behavior can also pervade their personal lives. It is only when these individuals offer benefits that far outweigh their liabilities that managers, employees, and friends tolerate—and adjust to or excuse—the disrespectful or manipulative behavior.

Passive-aggressive employees always have a reasonable excuse for being tardy (when they offer one at all)—the traffic was heavy, they had a physical problem, the dog ate their assignment, their computer went down, and so on. When decisions are made in their absence because the decision could not wait, they often show emotions ranging from disappointment to sullenness or rage that their input was not solicited. Managers joke that these folks will be “late to their own funeral.” Although these laggards may be the target of our light-hearted joking, over time, their consistent and ongoing tardiness, stubbornness, and sense of entitlement can result in lost productivity, loss of team unity, lower team morale, frustration, and resentment from managers and coworkers. These employees may be agreeable, apologetic, and possibly remorseful when challenged about their behavior; however, when confronted, they can also become defensive and even seem to be insulted!

The only reason passive-aggressive employees advance in companies, and in life, is because they are smart, talented, or effectively manipulative. To succeed in the face of often fierce opposition is itself a talent! A hair stylist I know is routinely 30 to 60 minutes late for her clients, but they tolerate her tardiness because she does a good job. Her clients have adjusted their behavior as a means of dealing with her tardiness—but this only serves to reinforce the hair stylist’s passive-aggressive behavior!

Passive-aggressive employees often are unable to change their behavior because it is rooted in anger, deep hostility, and wariness. Their passive aggression represents an inability to express frustration or anger in constructive or direct ways, and a lack of maturity, disrespect, and concern for other people’s feelings. These employees have somehow missed a crucial part of socialization that has to do with the development of empathy, intimacy, and collaboration. Instead, they have successfully been able to get others to conform to their way of conducting themselves, and therefore have little incentive to change. Psychologically, these individuals have never learned to express their hostility in a direct and constructive manner. In fact, they may assert that nothing is wrong and that they are simply disorganized or absent-minded. They will rarely take serious responsibility for their shortcomings or the discomfort and frustration it causes others.

So what is a manager to do? Dealing with passive-aggressive employees is especially difficult because it is unlikely these employees will truly change their behavior. In larger companies, these are the employees who may have gotten “passed around” because of the frustration previous managers have had with them. But there are effective ways to manage passive-aggressive employees.

  1. Establish Individual Contributor Roles: Passive-aggressive employees are not good team players. In fact, they can negatively impact the function and morale of a team. To the extent possible, put passive-aggressive employees into an individual contributor role, in which the work they do is independent of others relying on them.
  2. Set Clear Boundaries: It is critical to set clear boundaries with passive-aggressive employees in terms of expectations, quantity, quality, and timeliness of work. Equally critical is for you to be consistent with your expectations and not waver in the face of seemingly good excuses. The less consistent you are with your expectations and the subsequent consequences, the more likely the negative behavior will continue.
  3. Schedule Regular Performance Meetings: With passive-aggressive employees, reviewing clear and documented assignments in regularly scheduled meetings (at least weekly) is critical to determining whether these employees are completing their assignments. During these meetings you can demonstrate both positive regard for work done as expected and specific feedback where modifications are necessary. Be vigilant against manipulation and in your resolve and expectations.
  4. Manage Emotions: Because passive-aggressive employees have not learned how to express anger or frustration appropriately, encourage them to discuss their feelings when things are not going well. You are not their therapist, of course, but giving them the opportunity to talk about what is really behind their behavior can help create a new paradigm for relating to issues that affect their performance.
  5. Manage Decisively: When old patterns of passive aggression emerge, act quickly and decisively to deal with them. Putting passive-aggressive employees on a performance improvement plan or redeploying them in the face of opposition are wise and sometimes necessary options. Similarly, when new and positive behaviors emerge, being quick to recognize them and reward individuals for their success will reinforce new patterns and ways to move forward.