Insider Exclusive: Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

Insider Exclusive: Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace

By Pamela Jett

Passive-aggressive behavior, sometimes known as the “nice-nasty,” is communication (behavior) that is “nicety-nice” on the surface, but the underlying intent is mean, rude, and/or manipulative. While we cannot stop the passive-aggressive person from being passive-aggressive, it is helpful to have a better understanding of what passive-aggressiveness is and why people use it.

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressiveness takes many forms:

  • Sarcasm
  • Ghosting (to cease communication without a formal “good-bye”)
  • The silent treatment
  • Sabotage
  • Withholding time, praise, intimacy, opportunity
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Hinting
  • And many more

These behaviors all allow people who aren’t comfortable with being openly aggressive get what they want under the guise of still trying to please others or having “plausible deniability”. For example, if someone uses sarcasm, and he or she is confronted by the recipient, he or she can claim “that’s not what I meant” or even resort to “gaslighting” (intentionally trying to make the other person doubt himself or the validity of his perceptions and feelings) with something like “Geez—you are too sensitive.” Passive-aggressive people want their way, but they also want everyone to still like them and they do not want to be held accountable for their aggressive behavior.

Why People Are Passive-Aggressive

I am often asked, “Why are people passive-aggressive?” Some of the more obvious answers include:

  • They are often insecure.
  • They may have poor communication skills.
  • They don’t know how to be assertive. (Important note: assertive and aggressive are very different.)
  • They may struggle with jealously (personal or professional).
  • They may feel out of control or a need to gain (or regain) power.
  • They may have learned it “works” for them.
  • It allows them to stay in their “comfort zone” and avoid the accountability assertiveness requires.

Lesser-Known Reasons for Passive-Aggressive Behavior

In addition to these reasons, below are a few less-widely talked about—and yet still prevalent—reasons:

  • Anger is often socially unacceptable (especially for women), whereas sugarcoated anger can be socially acceptable. While some people may feel anger, they are not comfortable expressing it directly for fear of social censure. When the anger gets sugarcoated, that social censure is typically less.
  • Assertiveness can be simultaneously empowering and terrifying. Being assertive and asking for what you want or need by being direct and clear about your expectations can feel risky. By choosing passive-aggressiveness (indirect communication), individuals give themselves a more palatable explanation for another’s behavior.
  • Passive-aggressiveness can feel powerful. Because it is often manipulative and can be disconcerting to others, passive-aggressiveness can feel powerful. Passive-aggressiveness can be a way for insecure people to gain some of the power and control they feel they are lacking. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is mutually respectful (power is shared).
  • Passive-aggressiveness can be easily rationalized. Passive-aggressive people are very adept at justifying their behavior. It is their brain’s way of arguing for their comfort zone. Any twinges of remorse or regret are quickly squashed by an inner pull that negates the necessity for change or personal growth.
  • Being on the receiving end of passive-aggressiveness can be frustrating, confounding, hurtful, and can even be the reason to end a relationship, quit a job, or even retaliate. By understanding what passive-aggressive behavior is and why people use it, you can help model constructive behavior such as using more direct methods of communication.

Pamela Jett is a communication skills and leadership expert who moves beyond communication theory into practical strategies that can be implemented immediately to create the kind of leadership, teamwork, and employee engagement results her clients want. She will be a speaker at the 2018 ABA Annual Meeting & Marketplace in Charlotte, N.C. To learn more, visit

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