[Human Resources] Passive Aggressive Behavior: A Workplace Cancer

Features - Employee Management

Can you identify the common warning signals of a destructive employee who is negatively impacting your pest control business?

May 27, 2014
Christopher Donaghy

He told you that he was committed to the project, but that’s not what he really meant. Now the project is facing serious setbacks, costing your pest control company valuable time and money. The planned initiative is 60 days behind schedule with busy season rapidly approaching. The project team seems confused and misaligned to the agreed upon objectives. As a matter of fact, most of the project leader’s direct reports appear to have shifting priorities and claim to be overworked. The team’s morale is low. It seems the project might even be moving in a direction that was not approved or discussed with you.

This isn’t the first time he has failed the company. He always seems to make excuses and blame others for his shortcomings. You are at your wit’s end because you believed there was clarity and alignment around the critical objectives, timeline and deadline of this critical project. You thought everything was going according to plan because you asked him often, “How’s it going?” and he always responded positively. You are frustrated and disappointed with the team and even more so with the project leader. Where did you go wrong? Why is this yet another major setback for the project?

The Passive-Aggressive Profile.

Passive-aggressive (PA) behavior is no longer identified by clinical psychologists or the medical community as a mental disorder, and it is generally viewed as a flawed character trait. While many managers of employees with PA-tendencies might feel this behavior can be managed through training and coaching, think again. Employees with this character trait simply do not accept management or its authority, and they will resist all attempts for compliance while planting the seeds of negativity down the line and by creating workplace disharmony.

The important point here for managers to understand is that these “anti” activities are seldom displayed by PA employees in front of them since these individuals are usually conflict averse and prefer to wage their undeclared wars behind the scenes in a back-stabbing manner. Passive-aggressive personalities in the workplace are playing a dangerous game of corporate sabotage and they play it by their own secret and destructive rules.

Dos and Don’ts For Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Personalities

To prevent passive-aggressive personalities from disrupting your workplace, carefully consider the following dos and don’ts:

Do create a detailed “job parts” and “expectations” lists for all positions on the organization chart (top to bottom).

Do employ the use of personality profile assessment tools that can help to identify personality traits that may become disruptive in the workplace. Use these tools in the recruiting process and for all key positions currently employed.

Do your pre-hire homework: Past performance is the greatest predictor of future performance. If the past shows some concerning issues that don’t pass the gut test, then take a pass on the candidate.

Do react when words aren’t matching actions in the workplace. Ignore this behavior and the cancer grows quietly and swiftly.

Do create high accountability standards, and then hold all employees to them.

Do stay on top of critically important objectives, and inspect what you expect.

Do drill down on issues to make sure what is being reported to you is actually happening.

Do step closer to critical issues when someone assures you they are in control even though indicators show otherwise. Responses like “It’s fine” without any detailed support is a red flag for senior leaders to step closer to the issue and inspect deeper to ensure compliance.

Do address all performance shortcomings and maintain focus on the issues at hand.

Do place individuals under verbal and written warning for repeat performance or behavior shortcomings.

Do terminate repeat offenders after fair warning has been given in writing.

Do seek the views of other employees when direction seems confused and out of alignment.

Don’t play the role of a psychologist; you can’t fix passive-aggressive behavior, but you can root it out through accountability that focuses on expected results.

Don’t allow PAs to redirect your attention from their performance and behavior.

Don’t hire, promote or partner with people who exhibit PA tendencies that were indicated by past performance, previous employer feedback or personality assessments to prevent damage to company culture, employee morale and profits.

Don’t use electronic communication as the primary method to address performance issues with PAs. They prefer this form of communication over face to face meetings because they can dodge accountability with vagueness, which is not as easy to do face to face.

PAs plan their counteractions covertly, and not with any transparency. They will ally with others who have negative feelings toward management, and even with those whom they may despise, but can play an important disruptive role in their game. The ambush tactics used by these individuals are effective because most managers believe the word of their colleagues and employees is the same as a promise or commitment, so once their word is given, the assumption by most managers is that it will be followed. This is not the case with employees who have passive-aggressive personalities, and who exist in a system without enforced accountability standards. Even though most leaders develop a strong trust bond with their key employees, PA employees exhibit an absence of trust for most people, and especially for those holding authority positions above them.

Employees with PA tendencies are not likely to keep their word on commitments and promises, and the most unsettling part of dealing with people with this flawed character trait is that they never indicate what they really think, and they never allow managers the chance to gain true clarity and alignment with them. They will typically nod their heads in agreement for plans and assignments, contribute little meaningful input during team meetings, and never display their true feelings, going their own way rather than implementing what the manager desires. Additionally, PAs are quite proficient in acting along divergent pathways where they lead managers to believe they are walking the talk, but in actuality they are pursuing a premeditated action plan of their own. Finding true alignment on any matter with employees who embody this trait can be difficult at best and downright dangerous to the business at worst if not vetted out quickly. This point is especially valid when the PA employee holds a key position within the organization and is view as a “trusted” member of the leadership team.

The reasons why people behave in this manner are still unknown to the mental health community, although many psychologists cite the possibility of negative childhood experiences as the root cause. But whatever the reasons, this behavior is destructive and presents a major risk to any business if one or more PA employee is part of the team. Remember, their agenda is secret and despite all attempts to gain agreement and alignment, their true intentions won’t be known until they act out on their own plan, and by that time, it might be too late to cap the damage. These people are working against management for reasons that will never be understood and can never be corrected. The higher PAs sit on the organizational chart, the greater the power of their destructive force within the company. So be vigilant and pay close attention to behavior and performance that are not in alignment with the company’s value system and critical objectives, and take action quickly.

The Real Danger.

Strong leaders gain followers by exhibiting behaviors and actions that transmit the message “I do as I say and lead by example,” not “Do as I say and not as I do!” Leaders who display PA tendencies are eventually seen by employees and colleagues as hypocrites. Once employees begin to see their manager as a hypocrite, they begin to go silent in order to avoid conflict or blame, they do just enough work to get by, and they stop offering ideas to improve service and profits because their input is typically ignored. More importantly, they might not blow the warning whistle against a PA if they fear retaliation. Employees under PA managers become disengaged and disenchanted with the company and their work. They stop believing in the vision and mission of the company, and eventually A&B players (top performers) will seek other employment opportunities, leaving the company with only average and sub-average performers (also known as paycheck employees). The fastest way to destroy a vibrant company culture, stop profitable growth and crush employee morale is at the hands of a manager exhibiting PA behavior.

A PA’s word is not their promise and it is meant to mislead; they are on a covert mission to block authority figures and others from attaining their goals. They will intentionally place more obstacles in front of the team than they remove. They are a true enemy within the camp; they know how to stay small enough to avoid detection; and they will recruit a few followers who can provide them with protection when management gets too close to the truth. Protection and prevention begin with understanding the warning signals of a PA who resides in your camp or is attempting to gain access if hired. Once he or she is employed, these warning signals are more obvious than in the recruiting and hiring phases. However, both can be detected through effective accountability practices and the use of assessment tools.

Warning Signals.

The common warning signals that a passive-aggressive personality may be in your company include:

  • Procrastination: Intentionally delays and believe deadlines don’t exist for them; their work is always late, behind schedule and holding up the progress of others; delaying excuses help them provide cover and buy more time to fulfill their own agenda.
  • Deliberate Inefficiency: Intentionally fails to complete assignments to block progress and successful outcomes of the plans of others.
  • Deliberate Forgetfulness: Intentionally misses or is often late for important meetings; plans sick leave around critical deadlines and project reviews.
  • Targeted Sarcasm: Will often publicly attack people who challenge their performance or ideas with targeted sarcasm; most witnesses and the victim do not consider it light-hearted joking.
  • Lacks Trust in People: Mostly for authority figures, but will turn on friends and co-workers quickly for self-interests, but usually revenge tactics are covert.
  • Rarely Expresses Anger Openly: The anger is pent up, but if crossed by a subordinate or counterpart, PAs will aggressively dress them down and attempt to embarrass them with public sarcasm.
  • Manipulate Priorities: Constantly changing the priorities and roles of others to maintain an unsettled and confused atmosphere.
  • Criticizes Authority Figures: This is usually done among people who will listen or in meetings where the senior manager (target of aggression) is not present.
  • Resistant to Change: While change creates discomfort for most employees, PAs will resist it completely and counteract it aggressively.
  • Lacks the Ability to Build Lasting Relationships: Inability to bond strongly with people due to the passive aggressive person’s lack of trust, but can be socially and outwardly friendly to win allies and temporary friends.
  • Withholds Critical Information: Does this to serve their own agenda, and to allow projects and others to fail.
  • Silent Treatment: Makes self generally unavailable and will shut-off voices of the truth by not responding to communication efforts. E-communication forms are the easiest for PAs to ignore or respond to with vagueness.
  • Master of Ambiguity: Fence-rider style when it comes to decision making and will express mixed messages to keep senior management off balance.
  • Silent Refusal to Subordinate: Authority figures are the problem in a PA’s world and they will fight compliance with counterproductive activities.
  • Fosters Chaos: Prefers to leave the puzzle incomplete, the job undone and people in a confused state.
  • Becomes the Victim: Easily offended. Quickly and effectively becomes the innocent victim of your growing demands for answers; never accepts responsibility for misdeeds and failures to communicate honestly.
  • Appears Enthusiastic: Agrees, but has no intentions of carrying out orders or promises, and performs in a manner that is not useful and sometimes damaging.
  • Chronically Impatient and Disinterested: Moves from project to project without completion of any.
  • Blames Others: Blames others for their failures and does not accept responsibility for anything. They rarely if ever apologize.
  • Stubbornness: Will resist and argue against new ideas, sound reasoning and valid recommendations from authority figures.

Author’s note:
This article was written based on my experiences of 27 years in management within the pest control industry, along with research from the following sources: NYU Langone Medical Center website and Psychology Today website for clinical definitions.


The author is president of PowerPlay Strategies, a professional consulting firm based in Daytona Beach, Fla. For more information, contact him via email at cdonaghy@giemedia.com.