Advice: Nipping passive-aggressive bullies in the bud

Dr Felicity Lawrence’s latest column gives advice on how to deal with passive-aggressive behaviour from staff.

Hi Dr Flis,

In the last month I was promoted to a manager position, which I first thought was awesome! Four weeks later and I’m struggling with a real pain in the neck.

One of my direct reports consistently interrupts me, sniggers or makes smart jokes at anything I say during meetings. I’ve tried to pull them up, but they ignore me. Their behaviour is also ignored or accepted by the rest of my team.  I’m in a new role and I don’t get why this person’s so special!

I just want to stop this behaviour before it impacts my team’s morale, and drives me insane.

Can you help me please?

Thanks Dr Flis,


Hi Greg

Congratulations on your promotion!

It sounds like you’re being played by a passive-aggressive bully. To help you recognise these types of behaviours, I’ve included a two minute video (above) to help you quickly spot them. If you want more information, such as what deliberate bullying behaviours look like, just click on this link HERE and go to my free 7 session eCourse.

My philosophy is: the faster you spot unhealthy work behaviours like bullying, the faster you can interrupt it before it escalates and hurt you or others.

You’re right, you do need to correct this behaviour quickly and professionally, before it impacts you and your team.

Stay cool

Firstly, you’re doing the right thing and keeping your cool. The minute you lose your control your direct report will know they’ve got you by the short and curl**s, and will simply have fun prodding you until you lose it again. So stay cool!

Use your political nous

Secondly, this is all about power and control. It sounds like your direct report’s been getting away with this rude behaviour for a while, so you need to find out their power base. For example, are they friends with your boss and feel invulnerable?

So, brush up on you workplace political nous skills and start digging around and find out their history.

One option could be to arrange a simple catch-up with your boss over coffee, under cover of unofficially share your first impressions of the new job. Without being specific, ask your boss for their insights on your direct reports and clients/customers.

Then listen very carefully. If your boss ‘forgets’ to describe this person, or gives very sketchy detail, there could be a problem that your boss is trying to dodge. You’ll need to dig around a bit more, however be careful you don’t accidentally flag what you’re doing. Use a cover story (e.g., ask about a past project that your direct report implemented and watch and listen to people’s reactions).

Grow a healthy, respectful work culture

Thirdly, I’m a bit concerned your direct report’s disrespectful behaviour is being accepted by the rest of your team.

One option you can use is to call your HR area and explain the situation (without naming names), and ask if they could conduct a workplace health survey to help you analyse your staff’s mental health, well-being and uncover any issues and concerns, etc. If this isn’t possible, you can use my five minute confidential Workplace Wish List HERE that’s easily implemented at the end of a normal group meeting.

It also sounds like you may need to reboot or reframe the work culture, and actively instil some respectful behaviours and attitudes and up-skill your team. Your team may not have the skills to know how to safely protect their boundaries and confidently interrupt unhealthy behaviours. Feel free to use my Respectful Work Culture Blueprint HERE, as your basic toolkit. I also provide tailored ‘culture change’ implementation plans for specific workplaces.

Move the spotlight

Fourthly, you really need to put the onus back onto your direct report to explain their unhealthy behaviour and attitude.  One tactic is to literally move the spotlight back onto them by asking a question that forces them to explain their actions or words.

Try practicing some of the retorts I’ve listed below until they feel natural and spontaneous. Obviously, feel free to create your own!

“What’s you point?”

“How’s that helpful?’

“That attitude isn’t helping.”


“Are you serious?”

“Do you get away with that behaviour a lot?”

“How’s that working for you?”

“How do you think that behaviour is professional?”

“My 6 year old acts out the same way you do. Do you think it might be time to grow-up?”

“Who rattled your chain?”

This might be a handy tactic to use in you next meeting. The instant you’re interrupted again, take a deep breath, look them in the eye, and in a calm, professional manner say,

“I get the sense you’re used to getting away with interrupting and talking over people in the past. I want you to know that I find your behaviour disrespectful and rude. It’s extremely unfair on everyone else who’s doing their best. I don’t want to see or hear any more of this. Do you think you could work with me on that?”

If they bluster at you, or deny it, simply say, “You and I both know that’s incorrect. From now on I want you to be respectful to me and the rest of this team. That’s all I want to say for now.”

Then pick up on your meeting and continue your discussion. You might also want to practice saying these lines so you feel comfortable and they feel natural. If you’d like more tactics for quickly spotting and safely dealing with unhealthy work behaviours, feel free to enrol on my free 7 session online course HERE.

All the best, and let me know how you go,

Dr Flis

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Categories: Behavioural Safety, Culture And Behaviours, New Safety and Health, Workplace psychology

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Andy McCall
Andy McCall

all well and good until the p/a bully is your boss!

Dr Dlis
Dr Dlis

Hi Andy – good point! these specific strategies are generally used for people reporting to you, although each situation is different. You have to adapt the strategies to your situation that you are facing. I give more strategy options in my free online course.

All the best
Dr Flis


Hi. Not a fan of the retorts (apart from the first one). It could lead to escalation?

Dr Flis
Dr Flis

Hi BParis – absolutely! only use the tactics that you are comfortable with, and that suit your Workplace. Hopefully one of the other strategies could be adapted to suit you and your Workplace.

All the best
Dr Flis

John Harrison
John Harrison

I think some of the approaches you suggest may be a bit too challenging in this situation and may easily backfire . Another way to deal with is to give the person specific responsible tasks within the team and ask them to report on progress at each meeting. That way the rest of the team will see if the person is really worth being there. Often giving someone more responsibility counters their irresponsible attitude. The person may just not be sufficiently challenged in their role and addressing that can change a person’s view of the team leader. Worth a try… Read more »

Dr Flis
Dr Flis

Thanks for you comments, John. Keep them coming!

All the best
Dr Flis


These really work!I tried one of your retorts (how’s that helpful?) with a staff member who’s been a thorn in my side, the past few months and it worked! I got a surprised mumble, and they backed off.

Dr Flis
Dr Flis

Good to hear, Mike.

It’s possible the person you’re dealing with will test you a couple of more times just to see if you really are standing up for yourself. So don’t be too surprised if something like this happens in the next day or two at work.

All the best
Dr Flis


I’m facing something a bit similar and hadn’t thought of digging around for back-stories – great idea about using cover stories. I’ll definitely keep this one in my back-pocket. Getting a grip on the political side of my job isn’t natural for me.

Dr Flis
Dr Flis

Thanks for your feedback, Jan.

Workplace Political nous isn’t the easiest things to grasp. See if your Workplace offers a course in this area, or better still locate a mentor (a trusted person who has a good reputation in your workplace) and learn from them.

All the best,
Dr Flis


Loved the short video – keep them coming please!

Dr Flis
Dr Flis

Will do : – )

Author Bio ▼

Dr Flis has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and is passionate about helping people who lead and work in organisations create better workplace experiences and improving work cultures. Get free resources and tactics on appropriately dealing with negative online and offline workplace behaviours at or contact Dr Flis at[email protected] or  LinkedIn. You can also follow Dr Flis on her blog Twitter or Facebook.


September 1, 2017

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