Anger and Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Doll with cracked face

Have you heard of “Minnesota Nice”? Here in Minnesota there is a cultural oddity we call Minnesota Nice. It is the tendency for Minnesotans to be pleasant, reserved, and understated. An especially important element of Minnesota Nice is that we avoid confrontation. Critics will point out that this is often just a veneer for passive-aggressive behavior! You might not live in Minnesota, and you might not have traveled through our state to experience Minnesota Nice, but you certainly know what passive-aggressive behavior is. You also know that leading in the midst of passive-aggressiveness can be a challenge.

What Is It?

Passive-aggressiveness takes on many behavioral forms, and there is always an attitudinal or emotional element that can be hard to detect by others. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders revision IV (or DSM IV) defines it as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

In plain language, that means, “has a bad attitude and is sometimes sneaky about not working well with others.”

Here are examples passive-aggressiveness:

  • Avoiding clear communication
  • Making excuses
  • Procrastinating
  • Avoiding problems
  • Blaming others
  • Sideways compliments
  • Avoiding “rocking the boat”

You might be thinking, “If that’s passive-aggressive behavior, how could it be the undercurrent of Minnesota Nice?” Good question.

The answer is that the dark side of Minnesota Nice does everything possible to avoid awkwardness and making trouble for ourselves. Passive-aggressiveness avoids clear communication so that I don’t have to put you on the spot about missing the deadline. Passive-aggressiveness makes excuses so that I don’t have to point out that you (my boss) didn’t give me the information I needed to do the job. Passive-aggressiveness procrastinates because I don’t want to hold you accountable for not having done your part of the work. And so on.

Why Do We Do This?

Psychology Today has an interesting article proposing 7 Reasons Why People Use Passive Aggressive Behavior. Here is a summary of the 7 reasons:

  1. Anger is Socially Unacceptable — Anger is normal, but we are socialized not to express it.
  2. Sugarcoated Hostility is Socially Acceptable — Once we learn that anger is socially unacceptable, we start to cover criticism in niceness. (Remember the old “sandwich technique” for giving feedback?)
  3. Passive-Aggression is Easier than Assertiveness — Assertiveness expressed properly is more effective, but this is a skill that is rarely taught anymore.
  4. Passive-Aggression is Easily Rationalized — It’s easier to explain away bad behavior than it is to own it and commit to more effective patterns.
  5. Revenge is Sweet — In an atmosphere of unfairness and having to watch your back, it often feels good to get back at someone.
  6. Passive-Aggressive Behavior is Convenient — Although we might normally be direct and address an issue without delay, sometimes we just don’t have the mental and emotional reserves to do so.
  7. Passive-Aggression can be Powerful — Catalyzing negative emotions and frustrations in others can create a sense of power.

Bottom line: Passive-aggressiveness is a form of anger toward others. Sometimes it is quiet and subtle. Sometimes it is active and overt. In all cases the root is anger.

Dealing With It

How can leaders help others deal with passive-aggressive anger?

The following seven questions are adapted from the work of David Powlison, senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. These questions are the basis for a healthy discussion about the root causes and effects of anger.

  1. Do you get angry about the right things?
  2. Do you express your anger in the right way?
  3. How long does your anger last?
  4. How controlled is your anger?
  5. What motivates your anger?
  6. Is your anger “primed and ready” to respond to another person’s habitual sins?
  7. What is the effect of your anger?

Notice that these questions do not presume that anger is wrong. It’s a complex discussion (for another article) to address what is good and bad anger, but for now we should acknowledge that anger can be appropriate and it can be dealt with in a healthy way.

Something I’ve noticed in myself is that when I’m angry, a bad kind of angry, there is something I am not trusting in. It’s usually a person. Perhaps it’s myself. Occasionally, my focus is an institution of society. In all cases, what has happened is that I have misapplied my trust.

Instead of trusting in myself, a person, or society, I should be placing my trust in the one, true, sovereign God. Anger means I have judged that something is wrong and I am concerned I cannot resolve it or that it won’t get resolved. Put more bluntly, I’m not trusting in God’s sovereignty.

O Lord, the God of our fathers, are You not God in the heavens? And are You not ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in Your hand so that no one can stand against You. (2 Chronicles 20:6)

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

2 thoughts on “Anger and Passive-Aggressive Behavior

  1. I’ve read and written a bit about passive-aggressive behavior here in Minnesota Nice Land but this concept of “misplaced trust” is new to me. It’s an interesting nuance. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the comment Jerilyn. I hadn’t really gotten “in touch” with this idea, either, until recently. While processing some of my own angers I realized that in all cases it was connected to someone or something failing my own notion of their responsibility. (We all have a tendency to set ourselves up as judge.) I realized, though, it’s not possible for any of us to be 100% reliable 100% of the time. While I want to, and we should carefully, extend trust to others, there will be failures. If in response I get angry about it (overtly or through passive-aggressiveness), I’m really expecting perfection from others. There’s only one perfect being. Not me. Not you. Only God.

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