Top 8 causes for passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace

“Worse now than ever before.” Seven in 10 Americans are facing unprecedented levels of passive aggression in the workplace, according to a new survey.

The poll of 2,000 employed adults who have witnessed passive-aggressive behaviors found 69% stated it has become a problem at their workplace. Nearly half (48%) said the behaviors have increased since the pre-Covid era.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) witness passive-aggressive behaviors in their workplace at least once a week. One in five (19%) women witness passive-aggressive behaviors every day, whereas 12% of men witness it at the same rate.

Commissioned by Go1 and conducted by OnePoll, the most common passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace include talking behind coworkers’ backs (54%), complaints and resentment (50%), silent treatments (49%), sarcasm (42%) and dishonesty (37%).

Among entry-level employees, the most observed behavior is sarcasm (76%). The upper echelons of senior management are able to spot talking behind the backs of others (60%) and executive management can sniff out “friendly reminders” from a mile away (55%).

Close to half (47%) found these behaviors are most likely to occur face-to-face. However, 41% said it’s also likely to occur either through email or online messaging channels.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents admitted to being passive-aggressive themselves. Those who admit the bad habits claimed it tended to stem from general work-related stress (18%), frustrations with colleagues (16%) and poor communication skills (12%).

They also stated they’re likely to show their passive-aggressive behaviors through “friendly reminders” (41%), talking behind coworkers’ backs (38%), complaints and resentment (36%), silent treatment (32%) and sarcasm (32%).

“Since the start of the pandemic, the American workforce has seen countless trends take over the workplace from ‘The Great Resignation’ to the most recent ‘Quiet Quitting’,” said Ashleigh Loughnan, Chief People Officer at Go1. “We’ve also found that since the pandemic, passive aggression in the workplace is worse than ever before, which can lead to a host of issues.

“This report is finding that apart from affecting company culture, passive aggression is impeding productivity, and in order to align the workforce, business leaders need to invest in soft skills training to ensure their companies are working in a cohesive manner.”

The study found workplace passive-aggressive behaviors often are caused by poor time management (51%), a lack of problem-solving skills (49%) and poor stress management (48%).

They’re also likely to lead to negative workplace relationships (63%), increased stress levels among employees (55%) and decreased productivity (49%).

Entry-level and executive managing respondents agreed that passive-aggressive behaviors “harbor negative relationships” with their colleagues (71% and 59%).

Meanwhile, junior, middle and senior management levels believe it especially increases stress levels among employees (67%, 60% and 58%, respectively).

It’s enough to have caused 71% to only do the bare minimum expected from them at work — similar to the recent “quiet quitting” phenomenon. Nearly as many (69%) have witnessed the same behaviors from their coworkers.

Seven in 10 (71%) said passive-aggressive coworkers would benefit from appropriate soft skills training.

When asked to identify soft skills — character traits that decide how well a person interacts with others — respondents said time management (53%), communication (50%) and problem-solving (47%) were all the most important.

In order to address passive-aggressive behaviors in the workplace, employees said they need to feel empowered to educate coworkers on better ways to communicate (74%), settle passive-aggressive situations (56%) and motivate others to maintain a positive culture (52%).

“Feeling stressed and lacking in communication or problem-solving skills can all lead to passive aggressive behaviors and as this research shows - reduces productivity and damages workplace culture.” said Loughnan. “Overcoming these behaviors at work starts with proper education and training. If people are better equipped with soft skills, such as communication or stress management, it can help solve the problem before it begins.

“We’re calling on companies to provide an open line of communication between their HR specialists and employees. They can implement and share resources to reduce passive-aggressive behavior and in turn, create healthier work environments.”

TOP 8 CAUSES FOR PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS

-Poor time management - 51%

-A lack of problem-solving skills - 49%

-Poor stress management - 48%

-A lack of adaptability - 46%

-Poor communication skills - 43%

-A lack of leadership - 42%

-Inability to take feedback - 33%

-A lack of empathy - 18%

Survey methodology:

This random double-opt-in survey of 2,000 employed Americans who have witnessed passive-aggressive behaviors was commissioned by Go1 between October 13 and October 21, 2022. It was conducted by market research company OnePoll, whose team members are members of the Market Research Society and have corporate membership to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR).