I often hear “He is just being passive aggressive” or “Her problem is she is passive aggressive” to dismiss behavior we don’t like or understand. A passive aggressive person has always seemed to me someone who mucks up the works without having the assertiveness to confront a challenge head on or the maturity to discuss a matter openly. The term is so overused, it’s worth checking out.
According to Dr. Daniel K. Hill-Flavin of the Mayo Clinic, a passive-aggressive person says one thing and does another. “There’s a disconnect,” he writes, “in what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does … true feelings are shared through actions, not words.” Thus, a passive-aggressive person may participate in a discussion, have great ideas, enthusiastically agree to take on projects, and then miss deadlines, show up late to meetings, and undermine progress.
Signs and symptoms according to Flavin include: resentment to the demands of others, complaining about feeling underappreciated, procrastination, sullenness, irritability, and cynicism. One anger management site adds pouting and sarcasm, claiming that 85-90% of the behavior is subconsciously driven. Great.
While there are people who are seething with resentment at the world and too afraid to confront it directly, most don’t start the day determined to be jerks. This kind of coping also arises in settings where we feel powerless. Employees who are ignored, devalued, and intimidated will convert feelings of anger and resentment into aggressive behavior tolerated by the organization. It’s been my experience that what’s tolerated varies, but passive aggressiveness often flies under the radar. Thus, it can be a survival strategy.
Cultures can also be passive aggressive, depending on levels of frustration, transparency, and willingness to accept accountability. This can explain puzzling interactions with entire departments where every employee’s first response is sarcasm and scorn, yet outside these individuals are peaches.
It seems to me a lot of behavior is lumped under “passive aggressive” without considering the nature of the environment. If sullen sarcasm is a reaction to demands from authority, in other words, maybe authority is to blame.
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