Why HR needs to stamp out passive aggression in the workplace

It’s important for employees to be able to express their frustrations in the right way, argues Arran Heal

‘Oh, didn’t I get back to you? I really meant to,’ says one colleague to another, smiling warmly. Or maybe it’s a manager in a meeting with their line report, using their soothing tones to deal with a disagreement by saying something like: ‘I’m so sorry that you didn’t understand what I was trying to say, please let me try again.’ And the response they get in reply: “OK, yes. You know what though, I think that last request might have been lost among the others you’d already sent over.”

It all looks perfectly reasonable at first glance. Just people in the workplace trying to be positive and work things through. And that’s the problem, given these comments are also typical examples of passive aggression.

As a tactic in modern workplaces, passive aggression (“the surreptitious, indirect and often insidious means by which we express antagonism or non-compliance while ensuring the plausible deniability of any such intentions”) is flourishing, says Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst at Goldsmiths, University of London. It’s always been there, because, as Cohen points out, “direct expressions of frustration and resentment are considered unprofessional” at work.

Remote working, more reliance on digital communications and less face-to-face contact between staff have ramped up the use of passive aggression, according to Cohen; both among staff to ‘get back’ at their boss without risking an obvious challenge, and by managers to quietly assert their authority and feelings of always being on top. You can be hostile and difficult and keep on denying any intention to be so. And the more the other person feels irritated or uncomfortable, the more effective the denials are in making them also feel guilty and suspicious they might be the actual cause of the problem.

Cohen’s conclusion is that passive aggression shouldn’t be stigmatised and seen as a negative personality trait in itself. It’s really just something normal – something we all use as a defence mechanism to cope with modern life. The anger has to go somewhere, and without the outlet of passive aggression we’d be even more wired and more likely to give way to violence. “Aggression can disguise itself in many ways, but undoubtedly the most effective in societies governed by intricate behavioural codes is to appear as its opposite,” Cohen explains.

In workplaces, though, regular use of passive aggression becomes destructive. It creates relationships based on pretence and mistrust – because we’re all sensitive to the use of language and tone, whether it’s always consciously or not. If employees can’t trust their boss to be honest or their fellow team members to be genuinely supportive, then work performance will deteriorate. However reasonable and justified and smiley it all seems, the seeds of a toxic culture are being planted everywhere. 

Cohen argues ultimately that openness in conversations “in a fiercely hierarchical world of bosses and middle managers and underlings” is probably just a “naive pipe dream”. But it’s short-sighted and wrong to stop the argument at this point. It’s too important an issue for HR and organisational leaders, and maybe also for the whole future of the workplace experience.

So HR needs to be less accepting of passive aggression and think more about what can be done. First of all that means taking away as much of the fear as possible – the concerns and insecurity that come with being open and direct about grievances – and equipping people to be more themselves rather than play a game that only has short-term, doubtful benefits. This happens as a result of better skills when it comes to dealing with conflict or potential conflict, whether it’s over the small things or big things. In other words there needs to be more ‘conversational integrity’: making sure people are listening to each other, are self aware, curious and conscious of their impact on others; more of the conversation skills that equip us to be resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views, different people. In this way people aren’t looking just to score points, in their own private ways, but to move forward and make things better.

So it’s not just about avoiding conflict. Expressing frustrations is an important safety valve, when done in the right way, when it’s happening among skilled people. Challenging conversations are good for business, for encouraging new perspectives and innovation, as a basis for a better working environment, more positivity and feelings of motivation.

Arran Heal is managing director at CMP