How to Cope with Passive-Aggressive People at Work and Elsewhere

In the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, Amy Gallo and 37 “Guest Experts” explain how to ensure that disagreements do not become lose-lose arguments in the workplace…or anywhere else.

Here are a few of her observations and suggestions to keep in mind when coping with passive-aggressive people at work or elsewhere.

“It is not uncommon for colleagues to make a passive-aggressive remark once in a while over a particularly sensitive issue or when they’re not sure how to directly address an issue. But persistent passive-aggressive behavior that manifests itself in a variety of situations is a different ball game. These individuals can be self-centered at best and narcissistic at worst, says Annie McKee. ’These are people who will do almost anything to get what they need including lie.’ But it may not be all her fault, either. In many organizations, direct, overt disagreement is now allowed, so ’some people have been trained to be passive-aggressive by their cultures,’ she explains.

“Passive-aggressive people are not necessarily more engaged in conflict than most, but they’re doing it in a way that’s tough to deal with. It’s not as clean as the indirect approach described in chapter 2, ‘Your Options for Handling Conflict,’ because they are not being honest about their intentions. ‘Fighting with these people is like shadowboxing,’ says McKee. It’s best to do nothing and work around them or to distance yourself (exit), if possible.”

Gallo then offers additional suggestions (Pages 127-130).

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Amy Gallo is a contributing editor to Harvard Business Review. As a speaker and workshop facilitator, she helps all manner of organizations to deal more effectively with conflict. To learn more about her and her work, please click here.

To learn more about Annie McKee and her work, please click here.

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