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How to Handle Passive-aggressive People

People with passive-aggressive personalities typically come across as quiet and shy. Additionally, you’ll notice they’re always nice, never defend themselves, and don’t assert themselves.

You can also recognize passive-aggressive people by other common behaviors:

  • talking about others, in a harmful way, behind their backs,
  • playing dumb to either frustrate others or gain some type of advantage, 
  • not taking responsibility for their actions, and
  • rarely saying what they really mean.

Passive-aggressive personality types want to be understood as nice, agreeable, and helpful, and they work very hard to project this image. The key to the behavior of passive-aggressive people is their inability to be assertive. This means they say “yes” when they want to say “no.” They commit to work or tasks they don’t want to do.

Passive-aggressive people are full of anger and fear. Unable to say “no,” they end up doing things they don’t want to and feel resentful about it. They sabotage work efforts and avoid fulfilling commitments they’ve made, all while maintaining a facade of pleasantness. 

Experience has taught them that this is how to deal with their unexpressed fear and anger. Passive-aggressive behavior may manifest as missed deadlines, broken promises, poorly done work, the silent treatment, and the use of excuses to justify actions.

Based on their typical behavior, passive-aggressive individuals generally fall into one of three categories:

  • knowledge warden — A knowledge warden will make excuses that you can’t reasonably counter without looking insensitive or unreasonable, and then they’ll withhold the information you need to do your job.
  • unresponsive aggressor — Unresponsive aggressors may hesitate when asked a question. As they hesitate, you may move on or make a decision without them. This is a stall tactic that is intended to frustrate or impede efficient, productive work.
  • waffler — The waffler hates to make decisions, always wants to be on the winning side, and desperately wants the approval of others. The waffler will do whatever it takes to avoid making a commitment. This is a clever way to impede work or exert control over a situation.