Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a pattern of indirect resistance to the demands or requests of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. Pretending not to understand is a typical passive-aggressive strategy. Such behavior is often protested by associates, evoking frustration or anger, and labelled "catty", "manipulative", or "acting/going dumb". Passive-aggressive behavior may be subconsciously or consciously used to evoke these emotions and reactions in others. It may also be used as an alternative to verbalizing or acting out their own anger.
It is an act if it is occasional and does not substantially interfere with social or occupational function, or relationships; it is a behavior if it used more persistently; it is a personality disorder if there is a pervasive pattern of such behavior which does interfere in these areas.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders revision IV (DSM-IV) describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as a "pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations".
Passive-aggressive behavior is not necessarily a personality disorder. A personality disorder includes deviation in affectivity, cognition, control over impulses, and need for gratification, ways of perceiving and thinking, and inflexible, maladaptive, or otherwise dysfunctional behaviour. There must be personal distress attributable to such behaviour.
In psychology, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of non-active resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, sullenness, stubbornness, and negative attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected by others. Most frequently it occurs in the workplace, where resistance is exhibited by indirect behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency, especially in reaction to demands by authority figures, but it can also occur in interpersonal contexts.
Another source characterizes passive-aggressive behavior as: "a personality trait marked by a pervasive pattern of negative attitudes and characterized by passive, sometimes obstructionist resistance to complying with expectations in interpersonal or occupational situations. Behaviors: learned helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible". Other examples of passive-aggressive behavior might include avoiding direct or clear communication, evading problems, fear of intimacy or competition, making excuses, blaming others, obstructionism, playing the victim, feigning compliance with requests, sarcasm, backhanded compliments, and hiding anger.
In conflict theory, passive-aggressive behavior can resemble a behavior better described as catty, as it consists of deliberate, active, but carefully veiled hostile acts which are distinctively different in character from the non-assertive style of passive resistance.
Passive-aggressive behavior from workers and managers is damaging to team unity and productivity. In the ad for Warner's[who?] online ebook, it says: "The worst case of passive-aggressive behavior involves destructive attitudes such as negativity, sullenness, resentment, procrastination, 'forgetting' to do something, chronic lateness, and intentional inefficiency." If this behavior is ignored it could result in decreased office efficiency and frustration among workers. If managers are passive-aggressive in their behavior, it can end up stifling team creativity. De Angelis says, "It would actually make perfect sense that those promoted to leadership positions might often be those who on the surface appear to be agreeable, diplomatic and supportive, yet who are actually dishonest, backstabbing saboteurs behind the scenes."
Passive-aggressive behavior was first defined clinically by Colonel William Menninger during World War II in the context of men's reaction to military compliance. Menninger described soldiers who were not openly defiant but expressed their civil disobedience (what he called "aggressiveness") "by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism" due to what Menninger saw as an "immaturity" and a reaction to "routine military stress".
According to some psychoanalytic views, noncompliance is not indicative of true passive-aggressive behavior, which may instead be defined as the manifestation of emotions that have been repressed based on a self-imposed need for acceptance.