• Pamela Cournoyer

The Toxic Communication Tactic That’s Killing Your Company Culture

Contributing author Amy Collett, edited by Pamela Cournoyer


Is passive aggression poisoning your company culture? Every leader has to deal with a passive-aggressive employee from time to time. However, when passive aggression pervades the workplace, it points to something wrong within your company's culture.

What does passive aggression look like?

Passive aggression is an intentionally below-the-radar method of expressing anger. That makes it challenging to spot unless you're on the receiving end. It’s important as a manager to root out these toxic tactics before they take hold.


Signs of passive aggression at work can look something like this:


● Engaging in gossip, spreading rumors, and complaining of any sort.

● Picking apart others ideas, providing non-constructive criticism, and rejecting other viewpoints.

● Sarcastic comments and thinly veiled insults.

● Giving the silent treatment or being non-responsive when the object of their passive aggression is watching.

● Indirect communication like leaving cynical notes or going directly to a supervisor instead of addressing their issue of concern with the person whom they are complaining about.

● Setting others up for failure. For example, withholding information or intentionally procrastinating on projects that directly affect their target.

● Avoiding accountability. Look out for phrases like “I never got the message,” “I thought you knew,” or “That's not my job.”

Where does passive aggression come from?

Passive aggression usually is birthed from suppressed frustration. The passive-aggressive person often has learned to use passive-aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism to provide them with a sense of control or power.


Passive-aggressive people aren't usually passively aggressive toward everyone. Rather, their toxicity is mostly reserved for the subjects of their discontent, however entire workplace teams can get in their line of fire.


Passive aggression may arise from personality clashes, jealousy, embarrassment, or a sense of loss of control or power. Often, the passive-aggressive employee lacks the confidence or the assertiveness in directly addressing their decided area of discontent. Nor are they willing to use conflict resolution skills to address disagreements constructively. Passive-aggressive behavior is the easy way out of a situation that makes them feel like they look bad to others.


Passive-aggressive behavior feels incredibly malicious to the receiver and in order to regain the trust and confidence of your entire team, it must be addressed. But how?

Dealing with passive aggression when you're the target

Addressing passive aggression can be very difficult when you're the target. If a boss, colleague, or subordinate is acting passively aggressive towards you, here are a few tips to cope – select the ones that seem likely that you would actually use.


Rebuild the relationship. This is listed first because if resolved, none of the rest are necessary. Often because you have been singled out, often you can set your watch by the moment things went south between yourself and the passive-aggressive co-worker. It can be as simple as you getting the job they also applied for, or you getting praised for your work on a project they felt they should have been included in. Mending lost rapport may help eliminate underlying causes of passive aggression so your colleague grows comfortable communicating directly.

Replace your own victim thinking with creator thinking. Dealing with passive aggression can feel frustrating and divisive. Remain mindful in interactions with passive-aggressive coworkers. (Look at the entire picture instead of just how you feel in the moment). Find someone who will help you work through this instead of to complain to. Choose to promote self-care through surrounding yourself with good vibrations or positive energy at work and home.

Take the higher road. The worst way to respond to passive behavior is to return in-kind behavior. Instead, choose to remain calm, assertive, and respectful when dealing with passive-aggressive colleagues. When you get really good at this, you will learn to focus on facts and solutions rather than assigning blame. Blame, as you know, puts people on the defensive, which is like waving a red flag at a bull – it tells them “Charge!”.

Set boundaries and stick to them. Use direct, concrete, and timely communication – don’t wait until you are seething mad. If you tell them you are turning in the assignment with the names of the actual contributors at 4:00, then do so at 4:00, not at 6:00 because they called you at 3:58 and asked you to give them just a few more hours. You build a reputation by your actions.

Say ‘no’ to unreasonable requests. Rather than internalizing frustrations decide what your standards are and then set them around communication, disruption, and delegation. You will become a stronger team player by not defaulting to people pleasing.

Use “I” statements. “I feel like I’m not part of the team when I’m left out of the decisions”. “I am no longer available to answer work emails or texts after 5:00 pm, or on the weekends.” Stick to it!

Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior in your team

One-off passive aggression problems are difficult enough. What do you do when resentment and hostility infect your entire team?


Use your intuition. For you as a leader to stop passive-aggressive behavior in your team, you really need to understand what drives it.

Beef up your Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence is critical to curbing passive aggression in the workplace. Emotional intelligence starts with you, your awareness, it then shifts to how you deal with your own feelings about the passive-aggressive person or behavior. Then, it shifts to how you observe your team responding to the passive-aggressive behavior and finally what to do about it to protect you’re your team and the passive-aggressive team member. These skills are critical to management in order to address the situation constructively.

Call out sabotaging behavior when you see it. Most passive-aggressive people fear confrontation so be ready for them to go on the defensive as soon as you call it out. The use of open-ended questions without aggression may help you get at the source of the passive aggression.

Create a culture of feedback and dialogue and invite dissenting opinions. People who feel safe voicing their opinion are less likely to resort to passive-aggressive tactics.

Set the example. A company's leaders define its culture. Make sure you're practicing assertive communication and providing constructive feedback to all employees equally. Stay consistent in your communication and set clear expectations and standards of accountability. If necessary, establish consequences for passive-aggressive behavior.

Be the balance. Balance negative consequences with positive motivators.


Your best people leave when passive-aggressive behavior is allowed to erode morale and undermine company loyalty. Whether you're on the receiving end or not, it's important to address passive aggression head-on. By addressing toxicity at the source and setting a positive example from the top down, leaders can create a company culture where honest, direct, and kind communication is valued.


Is your company's culture in trouble?


If you're struggling with poor working relationships, ineffective teamwork, and low job satisfaction within your organization, passive aggression may be a cause. Schedule a passive-aggressive workplace review today with Pamela, conflict manage

ment expert, at Powerful & True, Inc. She will discuss steps you can take to stop passive-aggressive behavior from undermining your leadership and restore your team.

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