Applauz Blog

Why Passive Aggression Silently Harms Teams (And How to Stop It)

Published: October 6, 2022

Last Updated: November 3, 2022

  4 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux


Passive aggression at work is very common, and it can seriously harm your team's morale.

As a manager or leader, you might be familiar with the following situations:

  • You heard one of your team members make a joke that didn't land quite right. The "joke" didn't feel genuine but more like a dig or a snide remark. 
  • You had an employee promise to complete something and then "accidentally" drop the ball multiple times.
  • People withheld their true opinions when asked for feedback. But they gossiped or spread criticism behind closed doors.

These are all examples of passive aggression at work. Employees can engage in this type of communication, but managers and leaders can be guilty of it too.

This behaviour can often be subtle and fly under the radar for long periods. Or worse, people don't even realize they're doing it, so they don't hold themselves accountable.

These toxic actions have a way of self-propagating. The more people engage in them, the more others believe it’s ok to behave that way. As a result, passive-aggressive communication can quickly become the norm and contribute to the development of a troubled company culture.


does unhealthy communication show up at work?

At first, the word "aggressive" may throw some people off. Leaders may shake their heads in disbelief, stating, "the people in our company are nice," and no one is "aggressive" with each other.

But often, organizations with cultures that are too nice are the ones that fall the most prey to passive-aggressive tendencies – precisely because they are so conflict-averse.

I like this simple explanation from Psychology Today:

Passive aggression is a way of expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, indirectly instead of directly.

Here are some common ways passive aggression manifests in the workplace:

  • Gossip or talking badly about people while they are not there
  • Mean jokes, sarcasm, snide comments, etc.
  • Sullen attitude, going cold, silent treatment
  • Intentionally doing a task poorly
  • Scorekeeping silently 
  • Withholding opinions/information
  • Ignoring notes from coworkers
  • Resisting suggestions
  • Missing deadlines
  • Abusing policies
  • Procrastination

It's easy to see how these actions would cause serious disengagement problems within a team and even the entire company. If that's the case, why is it so common to find companies filled with people communicating with each other in such unproductive ways?

Why is it so common?

The first assumption might be that these tendencies result from the people who make up a team. In short, it's an individual problem.

For example, some people simply struggle with being assertive or fear conflict. Or maybe they've had former experiences with people or workplaces that punished them (even severely) for voicing their opinions. As a result, they are reluctant to be candid and honest.

But that's not a sufficient explanation.

Because even if someone had some previous experiences that were negative, placed in a more positive environment, they might grow to mimic those around them and adopt healthier ways of communicating.

To that end, if we go a little deeper, we can see these harmful habits stem from the norms that run our workplaces. In short, the unspoken ideas about how work "should be." 

I like this article from Psychology Today Why Passive-Aggressive Behavior Thrives in the Workplace, the author explores a few of these beliefs and how they influence our behaviour at work. Let's discuss a few of the most important ones. 

Emotions have no place at work 

Perhaps the number one belief that ends up sowing the seeds of a passive-aggressive climate is the expectation that emotions do not belong at work – particularly negative ones.

This belief denies an important reality: Humans are emotional beings. There is no way around that. And to believe that people can come to work and become unfeeling robots is impossible. 

Yet, many leaders expect people never to express an ounce of dissent or frustration. 

When you stifle expression, it will always fester. Until it eventually comes out in other ways – through gossip, procrastination, sulking, eye-rolling, etc. 

In other words, if you don't allow people to air their frustrations or have productive disagreements, people will find unproductive ways to be heard. 

Conflict should be avoided

We can all agree – few people enjoy conflict. But just because conflict feels bad doesn't mean it is bad. 

For example, being in a disagreement with someone or having to give difficult feedback that will possibly hurt someone's feelings is uncomfortable. As a result, it's easy to start avoiding these situations altogether. But this avoidance can actually undermine trust and the cohesiveness of a team.

When you sweep issues under the rug, they don't go away; rather, they tend to get worse and become more challenging to resolve.

Outdated rules about hierarchy

In many workplaces, employees may feel they cannot tell their boss how they really feel without risking their careers. In other words, workers feel they cannot be honest with management. A strong authoritarian climate rules.

Even in this atmosphere, employees will find other ways to express their opinions and feelings.

For example, consider an employee whose boss slaps yet another assignment down on their desk. The work is piling up. They are already working long hours. But the employee begrudgingly agrees as the cultural climate pressures them to say "yes," or never challenge authority. As a result, they procrastinate and request many deadline extensions in an attempt to suggest indirectly that they are swamped with work.


What can you do to curb unhealthy communication?

There is a high cost to allowing this harmful behaviour in the workplace. If your goal is to build a healthy and happy workplace, you must curb it early and proactively set the stage for healthy communication.

This article titled Reduce Passive-Aggressive Behavior on Your Team from HBR offers concrete guidance on how leaders can achieve this goal.

Let's explore a few of these tactics.

Reflect on your own tendencies: Reflect on your own tendencies around avoiding difficult conversations, what experiences contributed to these biases and think about if they are still serving you today.

Make room for dissent: Tackling differences in opinions head-on is one of the most important skills a team can master. Like author Kim Scott says in the best-selling book Radical Candour "challenging others and encouraging them to challenge you helps build trusting relationships." In other words, periodic doses of productive disagreement can be a good thing. When done respectfully and with care, it can actually strengthen relationships and promote growth.

Make sure everyone feels recognized: When leaders take the time to give authentic recognition, it will make people feel deeply validated and respected. This boosts feelings of trust and safety, which can reduce workplace stress and provide a buffer against toxic actions like passive aggression.

Identify and call it out quickly: If you notice passive-aggressive body language or sarcastic remarks being made, call it out on the spot. For example, by saying, "I get the sense we're using humour to avoid a serious discussion. What's making this conversation difficult?"

Final Thoughts

Many outdated norms and beliefs run our organizations. It’s no wonder, then, that it's so common to find passive aggression at work.

But you can correct this tendency by learning to invite healthy conflict onto your teams and allowing employees to air their opinions. Both good and bad. 

A psychologically safe team environment creates a buffer against toxic communication. As a result, happier and healthier working relationships will develop and, most importantly, better team performance can be achieved.

A Happier Workplace


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