Teaming Up on the Passive-Aggressive Employee

Last Updated Feb 22, 2011 3:57 PM EST

Among personality behaviors, the passive-aggressive employee can be the most difficult to work with. The P-A seems to actively endorse an idea or action, then passively resists it. She may tell you how much you deserved a promotion, then work to undermine you. This person is often subdued, obstructionist and negative -- always coming up with excuses why things can't get done. They play the victim like Sir Laurence Olivier played Othello.

This is behavior in which "hostility wears a mask of passivity," according to Scott Wetzler, author of Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man.

Managers dealing with passive-aggressives can quickly become beaten down in face-to-face encounters, moving from confusion to frustration to resignation.

Look, you can't change someone's personality -- that's a matter for therapists to take on. But managers can act in ways that make them more productive.

One potential remedy is to rely on your team to set and reinforce expectations for the person. This advice, offered by executive coaches Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins, suggests that peer pressure and shared expectations can overcome passive resistance.

"For example," they write on, "if you're in a meeting discussing next steps, make sure everyone articulates what they heard and verbally communicates what they commit to in specific terms (not just head nodding). This will accomplish two things: (1) your peer will have to openly declare his commitment to follow through and (2) the rest of the team will expect follow through. Ensure there are ways to solidify expectation setting and follow through across the team."

In other words, you are not using a team to team-up on the person, but rather to include them as part of the group, with an established role and expectations.

How do you deal with passive-aggressive employees? Is termination the only cure?

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(Photo by Flickr user Menage a Moi, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.