I work with a colleague who I find very frustrating and confusing. Outwardly she is polite and supportive, but she never follows through on her promises and lately I have heard that she is criticising me to others. She seems unhappy with me but when I ask her about it she denies it.  I have been promoted while she hasn’t progressed to the same level, and I feel she may be blaming me.   

You could be dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour. People who outwardly agree but grumble or complain to others; who leave anonymous notes in the kitchen about mess but won’t raise it at a team meeting; or who engage in activities like procrastination or silence to convey their displeasure, are often described as passive-aggressive.  

But what lies behind the passive-aggressive label?  US soldiers were the first to be labelled passive-aggressive. In 1945 the US War Department complained that some soldiers were expressing their aggression by passive measures such as “pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism”. Passive-aggressive personality disorder was diagnosed in 1952 but it remained controversial. It ceased to be described as a distinct personality disorder in 2013. Although there is still debate, passive-aggression is typically seen as a reaction to circumstances or personal history, a defence mechanism or a symptom of another psychological condition.  

So  how to work with people who act this way?  

They are usually unhappy about some aspect of their life. They may have difficulty communicating how they feel and in particular when requested to do something, they may have trouble saying “no” directly. This can lead them to adopt behaviour which makes them seem unapproachable to others, as a way of protecting themselves.  

They can be exhausting to work with, as executive coach Manfred Kets de Vries has reported in an article in Harvard Business Review.  

If you have to work with them and their behaviour is affecting you, try telling them calmly that you can sense their anger and ask what they are feeling. But don’t get drawn into an argument – let them know that there is an alternative way of making their feelings known and let them reflect on that.  

If they frequently use the “silent treatment”, fail to do what they promise, make sarcastic comments or criticise you behind your back, this can be distressing and damaging. Remember this is an attempt to control your behaviour –- possibly to get you to leave them alone or worse, make you feel bad for some perceived injustice. 

Recognise that the source of the tension you are feeling is the discrepancy between what they say and what they actually do. Try commenting on this in an open and honest way.  

You could try the “Columbo approach”. This is a style of questioning made famous by the US TV detective Columbo, played by Peter Falk. He questioned suspects in a bumbling, absent-minded style, but always focused on the specific discrepancy in what the suspect said or did, without being judgmental or blaming.  

For example:   

“Susan, would you prefer not to work on the client event with me?” 

“No, I told you I would do it.” 

“Well, that’s confusing,  because you seemed unhappy just now when I asked you how the invitation list was going.” 

“I don’t know what you mean.” 

“Well, you frowned and you sighed. To me, that suggests you’re unhappy.” 

“You’re imagining things.” 

“I don’t think so. How are you feeling about the tasks I gave you?” 

You may not get a satisfactory answer, but this is not an exercise in point-scoring. By using brief conversations like this you may get them to reflect on their behaviour and whether there are other better ways of communicating.  

If you are their supervisor, working on building their self-esteem, giving them access to communication skills training and asking them about aspects of their life outside work could help. It is possible that this behaviour is affecting them in their personal life as well.  

A final point –  don’t blame yourself or wear yourself out trying to change them. You are not responsible for how they perceive reality. He or she may need counselling or psychological support beyond what you can provide. 

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