better, study of - Pete Carapetyan's personal blog

Working with Passive Aggressives

26 Apr 2010
Posted by Pete Carapetyan

How To Keep From Going Crazy Working With a Passive Aggressive

My good friend Jim Tucker came over and drank a few beers with me this weekend, wanting to talk out how he gets undone at work by his Passive Aggressive work-mates. Since I've had significant experience in this regard, I went through the process of re-remembering all the main points. Paula helped as well.
Nothing below should be read as a formula for achieving success with a PA. There is no such thing, except over very short time spans. Instead, this is about how to keep yourself from going crazy by thinking that it's something you did or did not do.
As with any blog anywhere, no pretense at objectivity is intended. What follows is merely my own experience.

A Passive Aggressive Never Presents As A Problem

Working with a PA is the most counter-intuitive thing you will ever do. That is their primary tactic, coming across exactly opposite from what is really going on, which also includes covering their tracks. Well honed PA skills never show on the radar, that is how the whole system works.

The trademark of a Passive Aggressive is that it seems anything but aggressive, and that you, not they, will be the one that feels crazy. If you don't know these two facts, there is nothing about what follows that will make even the slightest amount of sense.

It's a game - to make you seem like you're trying to play games

A talented PA will always appear very earnest, charming, and well intentioned. Anyone that attempts to show otherwise will be presented as someone who is "trying to play games". 

Whether working under you, next to you, or above you, the normal motivators of pride, shame, incentives, contracts, etc, will always follow the exact same predictable pattern. This person will always hit UNDER agreed upon arrangements or load sharing.

How far under? This varies by degree of consequence, and by the natural talent of the PA. They, much more than you, understand how little accountability may exist in any system of agreements or shared load. This is a talent developed with age and intelligence, the older and smarter, the greater this talent.

The best game that the PA plays is to keep implicit agreements on top of the list, when discussing intentions, and completely off the list, when it comes to performance or accountability.


Everything about a PA's tactics is to make this situation feel unique, which is a bit hard to believe when you've seen the EXACT same patterns year in and year out with dozens of PAs. I'm 55, and I've had plenty of PA subordinates and superiors alike. Styles are always different, but the basics are anything but unique.

The best way to consider this is based on trends. If they were late, for example. They would look at you like you were absolutely nuts to make a big deal out of them being late. But as a trend, it might have cost you a large amount of time in the aggregate, not to mention the fact that your own time is being discounted every time they pull this stunt. So by insisting on keeping every incident as unique, they get to repeat any transgression with impunity, knowing you'd look stupid to make anything of it.

Signature Moves

  • Everything is an emergency, or else no concern whatsoever. Very little middle ground.
  • Failure to plan on her part DOES equal an emergency on your part
  • Charm (in any of many forms) trumps responsible actions any day, including
    • Enthusiasm
    • Being Nice
    • Friendliness
    • Cooperative Attitude
    • Being a sympathetic figure
  • "Oh Yeah, I'll get right to that"
  • There is no contract
  • And repeating, for emphasis The mark of a PA is to always under-perform.

Another interesting feature of these approaches is that they work for the PA whether you work for him, along side him, or he works for you. Either way, the contract is null and void, and you (over, or under) get left holding the bag.

How to win with a PA

  • You can't change a PA, you can only train him, and only modestly.
  • You can't shame a PA, they are shameless. Don't even think about it.
  • You can't motivate them by a sense of fair play or guilt, because they measure themselves by their intentions, not what they deliver.
  • Understand that "I'll try"  always means "I feel absolutely no obligation to follow through this commitment after the first two weeks".
  • There is ONLY a two week period, on any concrete agreement. Never expect more.
  • A PA will always look good. That is their innate talent.
  • You can't use power plays with a PA. This is their domain. They always win. Power plays only work for getting rid of a PA, but you, not them, will look bad. DId I already say that covert power is their domain?
  • Logging contract infractions works, but only over a painful amount of time, and only if you want to look really bad.
  • Disassociation works, but again, only if you want to look really bad in everyone's eyes. Remember, this person knows how to be liked by everyone.
  • Pawn them off on someone else. (Promote them to a different department?)


Any PA always wants a relationship to continue if it's working for them, which, by definition, means that the other guy is carrying the load. That's an easy formula. So if you're working under or over a PA count on them to just expect that the relationship will never end.

If, on the other hand, you tire of carrying their water for them, and pursue an endgame, it always goes the same way. That look of confusion in their eyes - "How could you be so unreasonable?" That's if you're lucky. A good PA knows no end of revenge, and revenge has a long tail. Expect plenty of it, and never in a form you can fight. Remember, they WILL look good, so if you've forced an end game, well, watch out.

Implicit And Explicit Agreements

Implicit agreements are invisible, and explicit agreements are like the ones you never read when you click "Accept" on one of those software installation submit buttons.

That's what a PA lives by. There is an exception, however, and that is in any first day of any two week honeymoon period. A practiced PA knows how to trumpet out implicit agreements in that first day "Oh, of course I would always do my part in this yada yada arrangement". That might be the last you hear of it, so make a note. And smile.

Be Friendlier

The only way to outdo a PA is to be friendlier. That can be a trick, because remember, their job is to make you feel crazy. But it can be done.

Can I Be One, and Hate One At the same Time?

Let's do the math on that one. Who among us cannot be charming? Who among us cannot shirk our shared load? Now that we have 99% of us covered...any of us can hate any other, for shirking shared loads through charm and friendliness.

I myself can be a PA with the best of them. Having said as much, my own pathology usually runs a little closer the heroics and confrontation end of the scale, but often I find myself shirking in one area just so I can get heroics points in another. PA's flock to me because of these same heroics - their ticket to shirking the load. Which can confuse the hell out of them when I go PA on them.

Hell, it confuses me too. Hubris has no bounds. When all else fails, blame the other guy :(