To preserve relationships in the office, we all need to be tactful when communicating how we really feel about a colleague or project.
At best, this simply results in people choosing their words carefully, so the message stays relevant and helpful to the task at hand. But at worst, we can get passive-aggressive and bury hostility and frustration under corporate phrases that give us plausible deniability.
“It’s easily deniable: ‘Oh, I didn’t mean anything by that. I didn’t mean that you’re not doing a good job. I was just saying this,’” said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California.
“The problem is that it’s neither really constructive because the person may pick up on it or they may not… And it also doesn’t feel all that satisfying for you if you’re being passive-aggressive, because you are not getting your thoughts heard. You are just getting in a jab and walking away.”
Part of stopping passive-aggressive behaviour is learning how to identify when it’s happening at work, so that you can call it out – or squash the petty urge to be indirectly mean.
Here are some of the most common passive-aggressive phrases we all encounter on the job, plus some suggestions for more assertive, tactful alternatives:
1. “Per my previous email … ”
“‘As I mentioned,’ or ‘per my last email,’ or ‘like I said,’ are all passive-aggressive variations of asserting yourself, correcting someone on a communication they missed or anchoring your reply on previous information,” says Anyelis Cordero, the founder of Propel On Purpose Coaching, designed for first-generation professionals.
“If you find yourself using these often, perhaps it’s a sign to review your initial communication,” she adds. “We expect others to read emails and understand them as we intended, in our voice and nuanced ways of communicating. The reality is that it doesn’t always translate.”
It can also be an indirect way for you to indicate that you are doing your due diligence, and the recipient of your email is not.
“The other reason people say, ‘per my previous email,’ is that it is a CYA [cover your ass] move, which suggests a lack of trust. Somebody might say ‘per my previous email’ to avoid getting in trouble or to suggest that they had already given that information, so ‘You can’t get upset now,’” says organisational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge.
A better alternative, Gallaher suggests, is to “approach the other person with grace and simply provide them with the helpful information” instead of getting frustrated at having to repeat yourself.
2. “CC’ing my boss for visibility.”
Kimberly B. Cummings, a leadership consultant and author of Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You’ll Love, says that when someone loops in your boss in an email thread, it can be a passive-aggressive way to convey that they don’t trust you.
“This is really a flag that they would like for your manager to stay in the loop in order to have their request prioritised or there may be a lack of trust in the relationship between the two peers,” Cummings says. “Another way to fix this is to simply ask for the request to be prioritised or ask about the person’s bandwidth or timeline to get back to you.”
3. “A lot of us think … ”
Gallaher says using phrases like “A lot of us think” can be an inflammatory way to hide your views behind the vague opinion of many others.
“It suggests, ‘We’ve all been talking about you behind your back.’ It also is usually vague about who ‘us’ refers to, which means that the person receiving the information can’t have a real conversation with the people who supposedly think what they think,” Gallaher says. “It is far more effective and more self-accountable for each person to speak for themselves.”
Plus, if you’re one of the co-workers being misrepresented in that broad category of “us,” it can “feel passive-aggressive, or at least ineffective, to be ‘spoken for,’” Gallaher says.
4. “Obviously” or “Clearly … ”
These are passive-aggressive qualifiers in which the hostile tone contradicts their meaning, Howes says.
When co-workers deploy these qualifiers in statements like, “Well, clearly, you know our company’s policy on this,” there is coded hostility, Howes says. “‘Why didn’t you know that? You should know better.’ That’s kind of the subtext there.”
A more tactful way to go is to point out to your co-worker, “Hey, you might not be aware,” or “Hey, not sure if you knew this,” Howes says.
5. “No offense, but … ”
Not only is this a condescending phrase that signals a lack of respect, it is also a common passive-aggressive one, Gallaher notes.
Instead of passively saying you don’t want to offend and then doing it anyway, Gallaher suggests you could directly state, “I’m concerned what I say might upset you, so I want to know: Do I have permission to give you feedback on something?” or “I’d love for us to build trust so we can have really open dialogue with each other. What do you think?”
And if you want to stop passive-aggressive behaviour from taking over your team, recognise that it all comes down to building trust with colleagues.
“People are often passive-aggressive because they haven’t clarified for themselves what they really want, or they’re afraid to put it out there honestly,” Gallaher says. “A lack of trust is usually a problem when people are afraid to be vulnerable and real with each other.”