Dear Sensible Midwesterner,
What is the most effective way to handle a passive-aggressive coworker? Politely, of course.
Dear Feeling Attacked,
Gold star for you for knowing you must do this politely. It’s the only sensible course since you don’t want to create a situation in which you’re the one being aggressive (passively or otherwise) at work.
The best was to handle this person? Avoid them as much as possible.
Since it’s a co-worker, however, you obviously can’t avoid them completely. In that case, there are a few things you can do to minimize their impact on you.
First things first, no matter what, do not take their actions personally. Even if (especially if) you suspect they are intended personally. Your buttons, this person will not push; the more reaction they get, the more satisfaction the passive-aggressive person takes. The more their missed deadline is their problem and not yours, the better. If their actions are impeding your ability to do your job, be sure to keep a record of all communications with them so they can’t passive-aggressively throw you under the bus when projects stall. (Keep emails, take notes at meetings.)
Second, recognize that passive-aggression comes from a place of anger, and most often from a place of being angry about feeling powerless. Pre-empt their sad sack stabs and give them some power. Solicit their opinion, ask for their take on a solution, give them a voice. In short, throw the dog a bone.
Third, communicate with them in as neutral and measured and observational tone as possible. Don’t accuse them, simple observe your take on the situation and give them a chance to correct themselves and add value by tossing the ball back in their court: “I was under the understanding that you were supposed to get me those files by Tuesday – was I wrong about that?” “I thought the agenda we’d set covered all our clients, did you have more issues you wanted to raise?” “I remember at the last office party people seemed pretty happy with the cheese and wine, did you have a different menu in mind?”
Much like dealing with a toddler, it’s all about consistency and repetition. And for that very reason, I suggest you avoid them as much as possible.