Passive Aggressive Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on July 8, 2013

Emotional Vampires At WorkBeing Passive-Aggressive means you never have to say you’re sorry.  That’s because you’re never aware of doing, or even thinking, anything that you need to be sorry about.

Eileen makes more mistakes than anyone on your team, but she never admits to them. Somehow, it’s always someone else’s problem. 

If you ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do (you can tell she doesn’t want to do it by the snorting, which she says is from sinus problems, or the eye rolling, which according to her is the result of staring at a computer screen all day) she agrees, then either forgets, misunderstands and goes ahead with whatever she wanted to do in the first place, or does absolutely nothing because she is sure you gave her the wrong instructions.  If you say something to her, she will be offended, and explain how it’s your fault for not being clear.  She may even cry because you’re picking on her.

If you think Eileen is a headache waiting to happen, read on.

Passive-Aggressives are among the hardest people in the world to work with.  They never admit to being angry themselves, but they have no trouble getting other people angry at them.  Always unjustly.

You may wonder how someone like Eileen, who is actually no dummy, can be so utterly clueless about her effect on other people.  What can she possibly be thinking?

Actually, that is the relevant question, but not in the exasperated way people usually ask it.  It is your frustration at Eileen for not acting the way you think she should rather than her behavior that causes the pain in your head. If you are outraged by outrageous people, you will be the one to suffer.  To ease the pain, let’s go back to original question, this time taken literally: What is she thinking?

Eileen thinks that she is a really nice, very competent person who is repeatedly mistreated by people demanding that she do things that either make no sense or are not humanly possible.

To you, and just about everybody else, these herculean labors are merely parts of her job that she doesn’t feel like doing.  You’re right of course, but being right won’t help you a bit, especially if you try to convince Eileen that she’s wrong.

Passive-Aggressives practice a peculiar kind of martial art that looks like just being nice but feels like being hit upside the head with a two-by-four.  If you approach them directly, they will use the force of your attack against you.  To defend yourself, you have to practice a martial art of your own.  It requires the Zen-like calm of a Jedi Knight and the chutzpah of a Jewish Mother.

Let’s start with the calm.  Here are some suggestions that might help you keep the Force with you.

  • Understand That She Isn’t Lying – Don’t work yourself up by judging Eileen by your standards.  If you were acting she does, you’d have to lie to bring it off.  Eileen doesn’t.  The fact that she’s angry at you and is fighting back with obstinate behavior may be apparent to everyone else on earth, but it is indiscernible to her.  Eileen has divided herself into what is all sweetness and light and what isn’t there.  Nothing you can say will change that.  Forget any attempt to make her admit what to she’s doing.  It will only make her cry and give you an even worse headache.   To communicate effectively with her, you have to step into her world.  You cannot say anything that conflicts with her view of herself.
  • Control Your Thoughts – passive-aggressives are like those woven finger traps we had as kids.  The harder you pull the harder it is to get out. The more intense you are, the more likely they are to retaliate with misunderstanding, forgetting or sabotage.  If you get angry, you will lose.   Getting angry is something you do, not an inevitable reaction to someone else’s behavior.  To control yourself, you have to be aware of the traps you can fall into that will lead you to react emotionally rather than think.If you’re the rebellious sort, your first impulse might be to get Eileen back by doing some of the same things to her as she seems to be doing to you.  Sarcastic rejoinders and mimicking are the weapons of choice.  The rationale, if you can call it that, is to show her how it feels to be messed with so she’ll know better than to mess with you.  To the best of my knowledge, this strategy has never worked on anyone, ever.If you’re a person who works hard and plays by the rules, you can make yourself so angry at Eileen’s dishonesty and lack of work ethic that you are tempted to lecture her on how responsible people are supposed to behave.  Sermons, no matter how well-crafted have no more effect on passive-aggressives than blunt sarcasm.Remember, the point is to get Eileen to do her job, not to get her back for not doing her job.  Now that you are calm enough to avoid emotional strategies that don’t work, let’s look at some that do.
  • Focus on Behavior, Not Attitude – You may be able to get Eileen to do her job, but you won’t be able to get her to do it without snorting and eye-rolling.  Don’t waste your time trying to improve her attitude or work ethic.
  • Pay Attention Now, Or Pay More Later — The best approach of all is prevention through attention.  To Passive-aggressive people, the most important things in the world are attention and approval. Why else would they fake being so nice?  For some passive-aggressives like Eileen, there is an added component.  She wants  all that attention and approval while exerting as little effort as possible.  To be effective, you need to accept this and go from there.  Catch her being good and reward her with the attention and approval she craves.  When she does something right, praise her for it.
  • Let Her Vent – passive-aggressives carry a lot of anger and resentment that they are only vaguely aware of.  For most angry people, letting them talk about how angry they are just makes them angrier.  This is not true with passive-aggressives.  Letting them get something off their chest actually decreases the amount of stored up hostility.  Of course since they’re not aware of their anger, you have to go about the venting process indirectly.  Ask what other workers might be upset about.  passive-aggressives will be only too happy to tell you what they feel if it’s disguised as someone else’s opinion.
  • Practice the Secret Martial Arts of Jewish Mothers – For thousands of years these techniques have not so subtly persuaded recalcitrant people to do what needs to be done.
  • Bring Food – A few little noshes can serve many purposes at the same time.  They are not just positive reinforcement, but love manifest, nurturing in its material form.  They are also a gentle form of guilt induction.  How can you let down someone who feeds you so well?   Food can also be used to set up an unmistakable contingency: no work, no eat.
  • Tell everybody – Kibitz about the progress of whatever project you are working on every chance you get.  Talk, send emails, write notes in the newsletter.  Mention everybody’s stellar efforts, except for those who aren’t making stellar efforts.
  • Nudjie – To nudjie is to nag in a loving but persistent way.  A time honored technique is tenacious over-concern.  For a Passive-Aggressive like Eileen, always check on what and how she’s doing.  If it’s not what you want, worry about her health.   If she makes faces, ask if she’s constipated and give her a bran muffin.  If she messes up on a project tell her your nephew did the same thing until he was diagnosed as having ADHD and put on medication.  Give her the name of the doctor.  Remember, nothing is too small to diagnose.  Ask detailed questions, and make it clear that you will not stop until they are answered.  Keep coming back until the job is done.   If done correctly, nudjieing is about as annoying as waterboarding, but far less messy.If you are constantly reminding Eileen of what she needs to do, she may just do it to get rid of you.  That is the point, isn’t it?  Nudjieing may be manipulative, but it is not heartless. When Eileen has done what you want, praise her and maybe give her a little nosh to build up her strength.

Passive-aggressive people cause more trouble than they need to. Their dynamics are simple and they respond well to praise and attention.  The problem is you can get so angry at how they act that you may not be able to think clearly about what is likely to be most effective.


Be safe; be well; be at peace,

Please NOTE:  Albert J. Bernstein PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Speaker and Business Consultant, and author of Emotional Vampires At Work, which can be purchased here.  He is guest blogging Dr. K’s blog while Dr. K takes a blogging sabbatical.  Dr. K will return in late-July.


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