HN0619-The Angry Smile

The Angry Smile

June 1, 2019
Part 1 of 3: The Hidden World of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors in the Workplace — Even for trained professionals, dealing with passive-aggressive (PA) people is always a challenge. We all recognize […]

Part 1 of 3: The Hidden World of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors in the Workplace —

Even for trained professionals, dealing with passive-aggressive (PA) people is always a challenge. We all recognize them: they miss deadlines, throw up roadblocks, promise and procrastinate, all with a smile on their face and soft words denying there is anything amiss.

Many workplace cultures share several common components that make them ripe for passive aggression, including: people spend a lot of time there, they form relationships with other people there, a professional atmosphere makes emotional expression unacceptable, expressions of anger seem like insubordination, a heavy reliance on electronic communications provides an ideal cover, the teamwork dynamic encouraged by many workplaces can be a great venue for obstructionism and loss of accountability, and more.

From electronic communication to water-cooler gossip, the workplace has countless channels for passive-aggressive (PA) communication. From personal reputations to corporate productivity, acts of hidden anger wreak havoc in the workplace.

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The PA employee typically does some or all of the following:
Avoids responsibility for tasks.
Does less when asked for more.
Takes longer than others to complete work.
Misses deadlines.
Withholds information.
Goes over a boss’s head to make himself or herself appear incompetent or unresponsive.
Leaves notes or uses e-mail to avoid face-to-face confrontation.
Doesn’t respond to notes or e-mails.
Follows a superior’s guidelines and then publicly complains that the guidelines are of no value.
Arrives late.
Extends the lunch break.
Uses sick days unnecessarily.
"Forgets" or "misplaces" important documents.
Resists suggestions for change or improvement.
Embarrasses coworkers in public settings, such as meetings or during presentations.
Obstructs workplace progress, goals, and productivity.
Has a plausible explanation to justify behavior.
Uses these strategies almost all of the time across most situations, as opposed to just once in a while.

What’s the effect on the coworkers? Coworkers can become:
Upset that their productivity and plans are foiled by the PA person.
Frustrated at having to take up the slack of the PA person’s inaction.
Irritated by the endless stream of excuses that the PA person uses.
Confounded as to why the PA person gets away with so much.
Angry, while the PA person seems perfectly content.

Your organization that employs the PA employee suffers, too. Some outcomes are:
Decreased productivity.
Damaged morale.
Increased turnover of valued employees.
Embarrassing public setbacks.

"There’s Something Missing From My Annual Review"

(Editor’s Note: It’s easy to think, at first, that passive-aggressive (PA) behavior occurs only in the non-supervisory, non-managerial, or non-executive, levels of employees. This is simply not true; PA behavior can and does occur in all levels of an organization. Consider this example.)

My boss could be described as "hot and cold". On a good day he was warm and friendly, offering positive feedback to this staff. On bad days – and you never knew when they’d come — he was cold, distant, and critical of minutiae. He had been with our organization for more than 20 years, and was a fixture of middle management. Though I think his days of aspiring for professional advancement were long gone, it seemed to be a priority for him to make sure that no one on his staff exceeded his position. The annual review was the weapon he used to guard his status.

Don’t misunderstand me — the reviews he wrote were never bad. I can honestly say that he never wrote an untrue word, nor did he cast anyone’s work in a poor light. Rather, his was a crime of omission. As they say: If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. In the world’s most terse documents, my boss completed each review to HR specifications but omitted from the company’s written record any mention of an employee’s significant annual contributions. In his PA way, he publicly and officially shortchanged employee accomplishments and ensure that at promotion time, their files would not be earmarked.

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In upcoming articles, we’ll learn about PA behaviors online, and how to change PA behavior — including learning the 6 steps to Benign Confrontation and the 8 skills to stop PA behavior.

About the Authors: This article contains excerpts from the book The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online, by Nicholas J. Long, Jody E. Long, and Signe Whitson. The book provides many important insights about the destructive nature of passive aggression, offers several examples of PA behavior, and provides empowering, practical strategies for ending it.

The Angry Smile brings together 5 decades of research and study of passive aggressive behavior. Learning from the book and online training from the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute (LSCI), you can learn the powerful skills of Benign Confrontation, and begin to recognize the patterns, refuse to engage, discover how to channel and express your own anger appropriately, and more. For more information about LSCI, please visit

About the Author

Human Network Contributor

If you're interested in contributing an article, please email Sharon Vollman, Editorial Director, [email protected], or Lisa Weimer, Managing Editor, ISE Magazine, [email protected].