The Difference Between Active and Passive Aggression in Workplace Bullying

Some workplace bullies use obvious, direct aggression to threaten the people they target. Other bullies employ more indirect, passive aggression. What are the differences between these two methods of displaying anger?

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Bullies who use active aggression are obvious in their expressions of their emotion. They intimidate and coerce their targets in a show of clear, observable, physical aggression. They may display their aggression through verbal and / or non-verbal methods, employing behaviours such as:

  • Glaring at their target.
  • Rolling their eyes at them.
  • Shaking their head or tutting when their target speaks.
  • Stomping up to their target with a contemptuous expression on their face.
  • Speaking to their target in an openly irate and rude way.

Each of these behaviours is designed to place the target on the back foot, in the hope that they won’t know what to do in the face of such obvious aggression. Many targets become frightened to push back against openly abusive displays of anger such as these, and others would like to but don’t know how to handle such aggressive tactics. The bully hopes that by being so overtly aggressive they can get the upper hand and create a bullying dynamic in their relationship with the target. They hope that, having successfully coerced them this time round, they will be able to use similar behaviour in the future, and that they can remain in control of interactions between the two of them.

Bullies who use passive aggression may actually feel just as aggressive as those who use overt anger as a method of control. The difference is that their method of expressing their emotion is more subtle and indirect. For instance, they may:

  • Make insulting comments with a smile, in an attempt to patronise their target.
  • Only oppose the viewpoint of the target, but do so using an understated and apparently reasonable tone.
  • Use the influence available to them to ensure that proposals or plans put forward by the target are rejected or become subject to heated debate, not because those plans are unreasonable or ill-thought out, but simple to thwart the target’s wishes.
  • Undermine the target’s reputation behind their back by inventing slanders about them that are put forward with such apparent innocence that they are widely believed.

It is important to recognise the tactics of active or passive aggression for what they are: tactics designed to unsettle, coerce and intimidate the target. Learning what to say and do to send back a clear message to a bully who uses these methods that their tactic hasn’t prevailed – hasn’t caused the target to doubt themselves or question their own competence - will give even a skilled the bully pause for thought, and will be self-protective for the target.

Learning how to confront bullying behaviour safely and skilfully is a key goal for people vulnerable to attack. Develop your skills by:

Aryanne Oade

chartered psychologist, executive coach, author and publisher, Oade Associates Ltd

Hello and welcome to my blog. I specialize in handling challenging workplace dynamics, successfully working from the premise that the additional resources you seek are already within you. My aim is to be a catalyst so you can turn areas where you feel under-resourced or vulnerable into skills and strengths, become resilient in the face of adversity, and develop a life and work experience you are passionate about. Working from the evidence-base of psychology, and over twenty-five years’ experience, clients tell me they experience my coaching and books as insightful, practical, non-judgmental and empathic. My work on recovery from bullying and bully-proofing has been featured in leading publications such as The Independent, Irish Independent (Sunday), Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Learn more at