Relationship Help: I just don’t know why s/he gets under my skin!

Have you ever been ‘gone around’ at work?

You know those times, when you are the point person for a particular project and your requests for co-operation are ignored or you feel purposefully left out of the loop.

Recently I was coaching a management team where this was common. No wonder they were at each others’ throats!

Whatever could be the purpose of agreeing on lines of communication or on division of roles and responsibilities and then not following them? Well, that’s simple. There are people who think they will be noticed, valued or recognized for their initiative by doing this. They are mistaken. There are other people who think the rules do not apply to them. They, too, are mistaken. However, we have all seen cases where, unfair as it truly is, this ploy has worked! That is a situation for another day.

There are other people, however, who behave in a different way. These folks promise to do a task or follow agreed-upon guidelines and then repeatedly fail to perform. These are the folks who get under our skin, right?

As I was interviewing each member of the team, I learned that there was one person of the eight who regularly circumvented the lines of communication, client assignment, AND courtesy. In each reported instance, this fellow, when challenged, came up with weak reasons for his behavior. Each one was couched in his desire to ‘not inconvenience’ his co-worker, or, ‘take something off their plate’ or ‘I forgot’. This is insidious. If it had happened only one time and the colleague had clearly re-stated their agreements, that would have been one thing. However, it happened repeatedly with more than one colleague.

You likely know that there are four main categories into which we can place this type of behavior: passive, aggressive, assertive, or, passive-aggressive. Assertive behavior is the most productive, although there are times when both aggressive and passive behavior is a necessary choice. Which is he? Likely, passive-aggressive–which may be the most infuriatingly insidious behavior on the planet!

Peggy Elam, a past president of the Nashville Area Psychological Association, offers these insights:

“Passive-aggressive behaviors are those in which negative emotions — especially anger — are expressed indirectly through negative attitudes and resistance to reasonable requests. For instance, a worker resentful of another employee’s accomplishments may be consistently late or disruptive in meetings or settings in which his or her co-worker is lauded.

An employee angry at the boss for a last-minute assignment may purposefully botch the task in some way rather than directly telling the boss there isn’t enough time to do it properly. Passive-aggressive behaviors are fairly common, especially when people feel powerless to assert their desires directly…passive-aggressive individuals express their resistance to others — especially in work settings – by “procrastination, forgetfulness, stubbornness, and intentional inefficiency, especially in response to tasks assigned by authority figures.” They feel unappreciated and misunderstood, and they constantly complain to those around them. They blame difficulties on others and may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative and cynical. They often focus their discontent (and resistance) toward authority figures, which can include not only bosses but also parents, teachers or spouses who take a parental role.”

It is the gradual and cumulative effect of working with passive-aggressive people that eventually takes its toll on a work group or team. So, what do to?

If such a person has found his or her way into your workplace, it is time to take action. Of course, if this is the boss we’re speaking of, that action may be taking a hike, however, let’s consider your options for managing this behavior in co-workers.


Make it a practice to take one minute after any meeting—whether just two of you or the entire team–to clarify by email the results and agreements made. Have each attendee sign-off on this by simply replying. Do this even when you think it is unnecessary. Great! One giant step to removing any lack of clarity.


It is always wise for any team to step aside from task-oriented issues and establish process guidelines. Decide what the procedure is if anyone can see that they cannot complete their undertakings in a timely manner. This might be an agreement that, if a task cannot be done in time, that needs to be communicated to the group at least two days prior to the deadline. This leaves time for others to adjust, resources to be found, or the deadline to be moved. It’s your decision. Having these agreements again leads to clarity.


Your workplace or work team is much more effective, cohesive and productive when issues can be discussed openly. Trust is completely eroded when people gossip. Wipe this out!

Create process in your meetings where challenges can be brought forward to the group. This is not the ‘blame game’. It is a systems approach. Is there something in our process that is consistently creating a hold-up? If that ‘something’ is ‘someone’, ask for their co-operation. Help them to define their challenges. Describe the behavior and describe its effect on team outcomes. Do this in a very neutral way. For example, ‘Our team needs all members to keep their commitments and follow our guidelines. Behavior other than that demonstrates unwillingness to be part of the team.’ If the behavior persists, then, other steps have to be taken to adjust the team constituency to include only team players.

If you have a passive-aggressive person on your team, implement the steps above. Unfortunately, few of these folks satisfactorily change quickly. Their issues stem from childhood and can seldom be changed on the job. Of course, with enough time, trust and attention, it is possible for them to believe that they are valued, have value and are safe. Once they feel appreciated and understood, they can give up their constant complaints and excuses. They can also begin to accept that they are the author of their behaviors rather than blaming difficulties on others.

If their skills are of great value to your workplace, you will particularly want to take immediate action on the steps above.

Perhaps you are not in a position to implement these steps. The co-worker may simply be someone you sit next to all day. That is the time for your personal boundaries to be given a voice. Remember, it is always your responsibility to teach people how to treat you. Speak up!

Rhoberta Shaler, PhD is The Relationship Help Doctor. She works with individuals, couples, families and workplace teams to help them develop the skills, insights and solutions that lead to better communication, conflict management and collaboration. You can work with her online through Skype® or Google+, by phone, or in-person in her office in Escondido, CA, at The Optimize Center. 


This article is an excerpt from Dr. Shaler’s book, “Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work” – if you’re experiencing ongoing challenges in your workplace relationships, this book will come in very handy.
Buy Wrestling Rhinos 

What folks have said…
You have no idea how much that helped – thank you so much – I wish you love., peace and a night filled with stars and sweet dreams xx Thank you for this excellent video. It was so helpful. Hard subject matter that you explained clearly and truthfully. I appreciate you and the knowledge that you are sharing.
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