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Silent Sabotage: Tackling Passive-Aggression in the Office

Strategies for recognizing covert workplace hostility.

Key points

  • Passive-aggressive behavior is subtle and challenging to detect and address effectively.
  • Feeling unfairly treated can lead people to sabotage team projects rather than address the true cause.
  • Power-hungry leaders may use passive aggression to restore their sense of control.
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Maxwell, a team member on a company project, consistently arrives late to meetings and submits work post team deadlines. Chloe, one of the other team members is fed up with Maxwell's behavior. But rather than talking to Maxwell, Chloe deals with her frustration by using team meetings to address the importance of punctuality and deadlines.

Chloe also regularly emails everyone to remind them of the importance of time management and accountability. Though she never mentions Maxwell's name, she knows full well that Maxwell is likely to feel targeted.

Although Chloe is never openly antagonistic toward Maxwell, her behavior is subtly aggressive. Such covert acts of hostility, whether intentional or subconscious, are also known as passive aggression.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of indirect expression of hostility, characterized by subtle insults, feigned indifference, or a deliberate refusal to engage.

Unlike overt aggression, which is explicit and confrontational, passive-aggressiveness operates under the surface and often beneath a veneer of politeness and ambiguity, which makes it difficult to identify and address. Concealed antagonism occurs in all relationships, and workplace relations are no exception.1,2

If you are the target of passive aggression at work, understanding its subtle, perplexing, and irrational underpinnings may help you tackle it maturely and effectively.

Subtle Snubs

Passive-aggressive individuals may employ subtle gestures or remarks to undermine others subtly. Suppose a marketing team made a new hire called Emily. As Emily is exceptionally talented, she quickly gains recognition for her innovative ideas.

However, one of her colleagues, Bruce, feels threatened by her success. Instead of addressing his feelings directly, he starts to employ passive-aggressive tactics to undermine her confidence and reputation.

When Emily presents her ideas during team meetings, Bruce subtly rolls his eyes or lets out exasperated sighs, signaling to others that he doesn't value her contributions.

But Bruce doesn't stop there. When chatting casually with other team members, he makes understated derogatory remarks about Emily's lack of experience and subtly questions the practicality of her suggestions.

These subtle put-downs are designed to do two things: make it harder for Emily to perform confidently and creatively, and generate doubt about her capabilities among colleagues.

Bruce can accomplish all that without ever directly saying anything mean to Emily or bad-mouthing her to colleagues.3

Backhanded Compliments

Concealed insults masquerading as compliments or constructive criticism are a hallmark of passive-aggressive behavior.

In our earlier example, Bruce may not stop at using subtle gestures and causal chats with other colleagues to undermine his coworker Emily.

To add insult to injury, Bruce might insult her using remarks masked as compliments in the presence of other team members, saying things like "It's impressive how you're adapting, Emily, considering you're still learning the ropes."

Whether cloaked in false praise or disguised as constructive criticism, such passive-aggressive behavior is designed to impair the envied target's competence and reputation while leaving the aggressor seem considerate and helpful.3

Power Through Resistance

Stubbornness and resistance to compromise and change are common tactics employed by passive-aggressive individuals to exert control, manipulate situations, or avenge what they perceive as disloyalty or disrespect.2,4

Suppose a software development team is considering transitioning to a new project management tool that promises to streamline workflows and improve collaboration.

Fletcher, the project manager, knows full well how beneficial the tool would be. But the change wasn't his idea, and he has felt his power slide lately. To reassert his authority and regain control, he resists implementing the change.

In team meetings, Fletcher exploits his authority to subtly discourage enthusiasm for the new tool, emphasizing the challenges and risks rather than the benefits. Whenever his team mentions the new tool, Fletcher shoots down the discussion or offers half-hearted compromises that ultimately maintain the status quo.

To conceal his ulterior motive, Fletcher enlists the support of colleagues he already won over to highlight the disadvantages of the new tool, thereby creating a sense of solidarity against implementing it.

Over lunch with company executives, Fletcher eloquently argues that the new tool is too complicated, unnecessary, and will disrupt the team's established workflow and reduce company profits.

Fletcher's efforts pay off. Not only does he win over the executive team, he also boosts his reputation as an effective and insightful leader.

This sort of stubborn resistance to beneficial change exemplified here is a paradigmatic form of passive aggression, often used by workplace leaders to assert their authority at the expense of their team and the company.

Misplaced Envy

Passive-aggressive individuals who are feeling maltreated or overlooked by their superiors or coworkers may feign compliance and congeniality while intentionally delaying or neglecting responsibilities or covertly sabotaging work projects.1,4

Suppose Archie, a graphic designer in an advertising agency, feels unfairly treated by management. Rather than confronting his superiors, he takes out his frustration on team members who had no say in the decision-making.

Archie's team is working on a tight deadline for a client's campaign, but due to his misplaced resentment, Archie delays completing his tasks. Instead of sharing with team members what's really upsetting him, he maintains a facade of compliance and congeniality.

When asked about the status of his work, Archie responds with vague assurances or promises to "get to it soon," without providing concrete timelines or updates.

As the deadline looms closer, Archie's silent sabotage becomes more apparent. He conveniently "forgets" to attend crucial planning meetings and respond to urgent emails from team members.

Rather than helping aggressors feel less resentful about managerial decisions, silent sabotage jeopardizes their success and unfairly punishes faultless colleagues.2

Don't Suffer Fools Lightly

Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace requires a nuanced approach that balances assertiveness with empathy.2,4 While direct confrontation may exacerbate tensions, passive acceptance only enables further manipulation. Instead, assertively calling out problematic behavior and setting clear boundaries are essential for succeeding at work and receiving the respect and recognition you deserve.


1. Brogaard, B. (2015). On Romantic Love. Oxford University Press.

2. Brogaard, B. (2000). Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion. Oxford University Press.

3. McGowan, M. K. (2019). Just Words: On Speech and Hidden Harm. Oxford University Press.

4. Pismenny, A., Eickers, G., & Prinz, J. (2024). Emotional Injustice. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy.

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