Ask A Shrink: How To Handle Passive Aggression

This question comes from a 31-year-old Midwestern mom.

How can I professionally handle passive aggression in the workplace? I have a staff member who is significantly older than I am, and she is constantly second-guessing or questioning everything I say or do. She either says, “That's not how I'm used to doing it,” or makes some backhanded remark.

I feel pissed off when she does those things, but then I don't really want to be the angry bitch and explode on her like some of my past bosses have done. So I'm trying to be firm without overdoing it.

I usually just ignore the comments and tell her to follow up on the tasks. When it's gotten too bad, I will send an email addressing it. It probably looks like a weak thing to do.

Oh, also, she used to have my position as the supervisor, but she was demoted years ago because she was very slow at getting things done.

Time to Reign Shit In


You are the boss. Fire her.

Done and done.

Oh, you're still here. There's clearly more going on, given that you're putting up with this behavior when you don't have to — because you're the boss.

As the supervisor, you are responsible for this passive-aggressive employee as well as all the other members of your team and the organization as a whole. When one employee constantly undermines your authority, it takes away from your ability to effectively do your job. So why are you still tolerating this one employee's disrespectful behavior at the expense of everything else?

People act in passive-aggressive ways because they are terrified of their aggression. They are frustrated with the way things are going, but they worry that directly speaking to these frustrations will lead to conflict. This scares them. Thus, they attempt to suppress the rage that is roiling inside of them by saying things in a “nice” way.

Passive aggressives really believe this works. PAs live in a fantasy world. In this fantasy, nobody around them can see that they want to eviscerate the object of their hatred with a salad spork. In fact, passive-aggressive folks are often in a world of self-denial. They don't even know how much pent-up rage they have inside.

She lost her job. You now have that job. She hates you for this. But she cannot stand this hate, so she shoves it way down.

My hunch, TTRSI, is that you too struggle with owning your aggression. Let me be clear: when I speak of aggression, I'm not talking about The Plastics' bullying behavior in Mean Girls. I'm talking about the aggression that a woman has to muster in order to break out of her shell and enter the world. Violent, passionate energy must be martialed in order to crack that shit open.

Aggression fuels our power, our creativity, our ability to break through the barriers holding us back. But aggression is sticky territory for women, especially in the workplace. Direct communication, when utilized by the ladies, is often equated to “being a bitch.”

But if speaking one's mind — addressing disrespectful behavior as it occurs — is bitchy, then I want to be a Class A bitch! I'd be joining the ranks of corporate and political leaders — all of whom have mastered the art of owning their authority. Nobody ever called Steve Jobs a bitch, possibly because he was a man. Meg Whitman, on the other hand …

The main reason PA's behavior is so difficult for you is because you too struggle to own your aggression. I'm glad you haven't fired her, because learning how to speak clearly and directly — as an authority figure — will change your life. Here is an example of what this could look like:

PA: “That's now how I'm used to doing it.”

New You: “Exactly, PA. The way you are used to doing things doesn't work. That's why I'm having you try something new. I'm open to any questions you have.”


Don't beat yourself up. You're not alone in this struggle. There are reasons you struggle to wield your authority with a firm kindness that are outside of your conscious awareness. You may have to do some deeper work with your own therapist around not only getting comfortable with your aggression, but owning that shit.

Passive aggression cannot stand in the face of someone who can own — truly own — her aggressive parts. As you do your internal work, my prediction is that PA's behavior will suddenly be no more than a blip on your radar. It really isn't about her after all.

Tiffany McLain has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities — be this professionally, ethnically or economically. She has been featured in Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Psyched in San Francisco Magazine. Find out more:

Disclaimer: Though Tiffany is a licensed professional, this advice column is not therapy. It is for education and entertainment. If you need help, set up an appointment with a licensed therapist.

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