Passive-aggressive behavior is a set of attitudes called "passive" that indirectly express a hidden hostility that is not openly assumed or that remains unconscious in the person who experiences it. It is a behavior that we sometimes adopt instinctively to avoid confrontation. And when we are accused of behaving in a passive-aggressive manner, we are often inclined to play the victim and not acknowledge our share of responsibility...
For the record, the term passive-aggressive was first used by an American military psychiatrist to designate, during the Second World War, a soldier who refused to comply with his superiors' orders, without any question of open insubordination. It is an indirect way of not obeying rather than a clear verbalization or frontal opposition. In short, it is a form of rebellion, but without provocation, which can take many forms.
Let's look at some examples of situations where passive-aggressive behavior occurs.
Are you angry, but never say so? Not verbalizing your anger when you are angry does no one any favors. Anger denial is a classic passive-aggressive behavior.
Procrastinating and defying authority
Do you procrastinate, find excuses to justify yourself, are you unreliable? These are all signs of passive-aggressive behavior. A person who shows such a tendency will say yes to everything that is asked of them, because they don't know how to say no clearly. But, in reality, they will manage to do nothing by saying they "forgot"! This is a way of defying authority.
Not following instructions
You don't do what you say? You say you agree, but you do the opposite? When given a task they don't really want to do, the passive-aggressive person may appear to agree, sometimes even enthusiastically, but they will not comply with the request.
Playing the victim
Are you quite comfortable adopting the posture of the victim and sometimes even exaggerate this status? Passive-aggressive personalities are often adept at the Karpman triangle, a psychological manipulation game that takes the form of a relationship scenario between people who alternately play the roles of victim, persecutor and savior. Passive-aggressives prefer victimization.
Do you express your displeasure without saying so? Sulking and cowering is a reflex of the passive-aggressive person. In other words, his or her reaction will be directly manifested by muteness, indifference and distance, the need to be in relationship and the expectations of dialogue of the other being openly ignored. She will also use sarcasm in her communications to create a tense atmosphere in her relationships.
Is this a personality disorder?
Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) has been eliminated as an official psychiatric diagnosis and relegated to the appendix of the fourth edition of the DSM (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). However, passive-aggressive behavior continues to play an important role in several theories of personality disorder (PD) (e.g., Benjamin, 1993; Millon, 1981; Morey, Hopwood, & Klein, 2007; Pretzer & Beck, 1996).
In a study by Hopwood et al. (2009), who used the NEO pi 3 to develop a portrait of passive-aggressives, the authors noted the following relationships with personality traits: a negative correlation with agreeableness (-.38) and conscientiousness (-.22), and a positive correlation with neuroticism (.32). Narcissistic (0.50), antisocial (0.36), borderline (0.50) and histrionic (0.45) traits are also strongly correlated with the passive-aggressive syndrome.
How to recognize passive-aggressives?
Although it is not a 100% sure way to identify them, it has been established that people with low levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability will generally engage in more passive-aggressive behavior. These indicators are often used to predict counterproductive behaviors at work, as in the Wally algorithm
Hopwood CJ, Morey LC, Markowitz JC, Pinto A, Skodol AE, Gunderson JG, Zanarini MC, Shea MT, Yen S, McGlashan TH, Ansell EB, Grilo CM, Sanislow CA. The construct validity of passive-aggressive personality disorder. Psychiatry. 2009 Fall;72(3):256-67. doi: 10.1521/psyc.2009.72.3.256. PMID: 19821648; PMCID: PMC2862968.
Impact in the workplace
In the workplace context, passivity-aggression primarily refers to the hostility hidden behind behaviors that result in counterproductive responses in a work environment. Whether malicious or not, these behaviours interfere with relationships, interrupt the flow of work, cause unrest and spread negative feelings in the organization.
In addition, the behaviors of a passive-aggressive employee negatively affect the overall productivity of a team. It is indeed very difficult, even depressing, to work with a colleague or boss who often acts in a passive-aggressive manner.
Some people's use of passive-aggressive behaviors and displays is a face-to-face conflict avoidance tactic and a way in which they are more comfortable expressing their feelings of anger to their supervisor or colleagues.
Stalling, procrastinating, using the silent treatment strategy, using sarcasm, or withholding information are common illustrations of behaviors that passive-aggressive employees engage in at the workplace.
Here is a more comprehensive list of passive-aggressive manifestations:
Silent treatment of a colleague
Unintentional" forgetting to do the work
Poor quality of work
Incongruence with the expected work
Negative comments about others in their absence
Pretending to have been hurt
Long coffee breaks
Frequent late arrivals
Lack of loyalty
Acts of revenge
It is good to remember that we all have passive-aggressive attitudes at times, without necessarily intending to hurt. We just don't want to confront a person directly and we think we are doing the right thing. However, this is not a very healthy form of communication. Let's be careful in the workplace and in our personal relationships.