Workplace anger often expressed as passive aggressive behavior

Dear Joan:

I appreciated your article on the “Silent Treatment.” For what it is worth, I am another type of critter.  I have used the silent treatment ... with negative results - of course. 

Some of us grew up in families where it was not ok to be angry.  We learned not to be openly angry and not to say we were angry. Of course, we were angry. The anger was like a caged animal – struggling to come out. What to do... 

Ah ha! The silent treatment! A passive-aggressive way to “hurt” someone without a jury being able to convict you! “I’m not angry.  I just don’t want to talk.” Or, “What’s the matter?  Can’t I just be quiet?” 

So, the motivation was not so much to get our way, at that point. But it could have been part of it, I suppose. Rather, though, a poor, convoluted, self-destructive way to try to vent or express anger in a situation in which we “couldn’t”. 

Mainly, as it turns out, the acid hurt the vessel more than the intended target. I’m 61 years old now, and still struggle with this tendency. But, by the Grace of God, I am better than I used to be! 


Thank you for your insightful letter. You may still struggle with the beast but it sounds as if you understand it well enough to tame it most of the time. As you so clearly point out, passive aggressive behavior does eat at you from the inside and it destroys relationships and erodes workplace morale. Unfortunately, passive aggressive behavior is one of the most common ways anger is displayed in the workplace. Because people fear retaliation for speaking up, or even fear for their jobs, anger goes deep and oozes out in unhealthy ways. 

Passive aggressive behavior can take many forms. Here are a few of the things I’ve seen: 

  • Stealing. Angry people want to get even but the passive aggressive person does it silently, by stealing office supplies, using company equipment to do personal work, or by slipping something under their coat. 
  • Chronic tardiness and absenteeism. Showing up late can be a form of passive aggression. It’s a way of making a not-so-subtle statement: “I don’t want to be there,” or, “You can just wait for me!” or, “How does it feel to do all the work without me?” 
  • Withholding help and information, when you know the other person needs it. A passive aggressive person will suddenly be “too busy” and be unavailable when the person with whom they’re angry needs them the most. 
  • Imbed an error, conveniently lose things. I know an administrative underling who was so bitter about how she was treated by her boss, she purposely deleted some key slides in her manager’s PowerPoint presentation, just before the big presentation to the Board. Of course, she claimed technical failure for the problem. Computer hackers are another classic example of angry people striking out in sneaky ways. 
  • Starting rumors or giving the person false information that undermines his or her confidence or performance. Starting rumors is sooo 1998. It takes a really sophisticated passive aggressive person to subtly feed slightly tainted information to the target of his or her scorn. “I get the feeling Jack has a problem with your style…” 
  • Undermine the person, either by making subtle comments about him or her, or by going around the person. A peer can chip away at a co-worker’s credibility by consistently going to one of their employees or team members, rather than going directly to the person for an answer. It makes the person look inept and irrelevant. 
  • Physical retaliation. Letting air out of tires, destroying work left at someone’s station, messing up a desk, or mixing up materials are all nasty ways of expressing anger. Once things escalate to this stage, passive aggression is crossing the line to aggressive. 

The world would be such a better place if we all simply said out loud, “It hurt my feelings when you…” Oh well…I can dream.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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