Stop being passive-aggressive

Communication  Relationships
28 September, 2015

Manage passive-aggressive behaviour – other people’s as well as your own

Have you experienced a situation when a colleague appears quite amenable in a meeting? But later, you see a different personality, almost a Mr Hyde, surfacing. The colleague does not share the required information, does not respond to your emails in a timely manner or perhaps even tries to sabotage your suggestions! And this probably leaves you quite perplexed. The colleague appeared quite friendly in front of your boss or in the meeting – but later, it felt as if things were different. You even heard that this colleague was bad mouthing you behind your back, “accidentally” not copying you on emails, playing blame games etc. On the face of it, things appeared agreeable, but the actual behaviour was quite disconnected.

If any of this sounds familiar, then there is a good chance that you’re dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour. Signe Whitson, coauthor of the book The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behaviour in Families, Schools and Workplaces defines passive aggression as “a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden or covert feelings of anger” and refers to a wide range of behaviours, all designed to get back at another person without that person recognising the underlying anger. So, it appears outwardly that the person is in agreement. This is what makes it difficult to identify the issue and assign any accountability.

Drawing from this, my message today focuses on passive-aggressive behaviour and why it can be so damaging to collaboration and our culture. As leaders, we need to make sure that we don’t allow such destructive behaviour to foster. And even more importantly, we need to make sure that we are personally not being passive-aggressive, (with or) without knowing it?

Dealing with passive-aggression at work

There is a good chance that you will, at one point or another, deal with passive-aggressive behaviour at work. And like with any conflict, you must accept that this is inevitable. After all, there are so many different people with so many differing priorities and opinions, who are spending so many hours together. There are bound to be disagreements. And there are bound to be people who will not be upfront about it, but rather choose to passively confront such situations.

Is this frustrating? But, of course. Does it interfere with your plans and deliverables? Very likely. So, pretending that it isn’t happening doesn’t help either. You will have to find a way of managing it. Here are seven suggestions:

1. Make it about the problem

Don’t take it personally. Try and be objective. Is the person deliberately being passive-aggressive? Why do you think this is so? If you were him, what would your reasons be? Is this something that only you are facing the brunt of? Or is this a pattern of behaviour with other people too? The better you are able to gauge some of this, the more effectively you will be able to handle the situation.

2. Don’t become part of the anger

This is probably one of the most important things to keep in mind while dealing with someone who is being passive-aggressive. Control what you can, which is your reaction to the situation. Don’t engage with the anger, because getting angry is exactly what the other person is hoping you will do. When you give in and get angry, you offer him a platform to play out his own, hidden feelings about the situation, without taking any responsibility for it.

3. Call it out

If you find someone being passive-aggressive, don’t ignore it. Call them out on it. Ask why they seem angry and if you can have a conversation about it. People who choose to be passive-aggressive do so because they are deeply uncomfortable with confrontation. So, this is a very effective way to force it to come to the fore. Then, share feedback on what you think the issue is, how this behaviour is impacting you and offer to work together on a solution to it.

4. Encourage direct communication

Passive-aggressive behaviour thrives in cultures and situations where you can hide behind emails and text messages and hear-say. So, we need to consciously push for more open and face-to-face communication.

5. Be very clear about delivery and expectations

The more specific you are about your expectations, the less room there will be for any excuses around misunderstandings. Be clear on accountability and get your team members to agree on deadlines and delivery parameters. Some people find going around the table and asking for commitments at the close of a meeting helpful. You could even circulate detailed minutes and have people write back in acknowledgement. Getting the entire team on board is important because then later, no one person can choose to be passive-aggressive and cite being unaware as a cause for not delivering.

6. Have consequences

Many times, people find that being passive-aggressive is an easy way out because there aren’t any obvious markers of conflict. They can get away without being held accountable for the damage that their behaviour is probably causing. Be very firm about not allowing this to happen.

7. Build an open culture

Along with discouraging people from being passive-aggressive, you need to create an open, honest space for conversations. People will only speak up when they know that there won’t be a backlash and that there is a real chance of being heard out openly.  

Even as you figure out ways to manage passive-aggression in your relationships, here’s the tougher question – are you being passive-aggressive yourself?

Now, most of you have probably said no even before finishing reading this sentence. But take a pause here. If none of us is being passive-aggressive or encouraging that behaviour in our teams, then it would hardly be a problem that we need to be concerned about. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Run through this checklist that Muriel Maignan Wilkins shares in her Harvard Business Review article Signs You’re Being Passive-Aggressive. Ask yourself – does any of this sound like you?

– You didn’t share your honest view on a topic, even when asked

– You got upset with someone, but didn’t let them know why

– You procrastinated on completing a deliverable primarily because you just didn’t see the value in it

– You praised someone in public, but criticised them in private

– You responded to an exchange with: “Whatever you want is fine, just tell me what you want me to do”, when in actuality, it wasn’t fine with you

If it does, then the truth is that you are probably being passive-aggressive, even if you won’t admit it. And if this is so, then it really is something that you need to work on. More for yourself, than anything else. You see, encouraging and engaging in this behaviour, even if you think you are avoiding conflict by doing so, can be very damaging. It impacts how you feel and the way you act and react, because you are in constant dissonance between what you actually feel and what you show you feel. And if you think about it, you will see the kind of multiplier effect that it is probably having on your teams and colleagues, not to mention projects and delivery.

What then? If you are being passive-aggressive, then here is what you could try doing:

  1. Accept it. Unless you are willing to agree that something is amiss in how you are choosing to respond to conflict, there really can’t be any change. Because you will always have excuses and look for ways to rationalise how you feel. You just have to take accountability here.
  1. Introspect.Why do you think you are reacting in this manner? When and where do you tend to do this? And with who? Think through carefully what happens and why you can’t bring yourself to confront and voice your concerns openly. Once you know where you are coming from, you can try working on this.
  1. What are you hoping to achieve?The reason for your behaviour is likely to be linked to what you think it will result in. Is it that you want to be seen as more agreeable and therefore you won’t be vocal about disagreements? Is it that your concern is with your boss and you don’t want to take here head-on because you’re worried about the consequences? Is it that you honestly believe that a wrong call is being made on a project, but because you don’t think you will get heard out, it is better to be silent and not give it your best? That you hope to take charge when things fall apart? Whatever the answer is – if you can be honest about this, then you can start figuring out if there is another, better and more productive way of arriving at that solution.
  1. Embrace conflict.This is something I have emphasised in my earlier message (http://www.monday-8am.com/embrace-conflict/) That the more diverse our teams get, the more you will need to become comfortable with having differences in opinion. And to be successful, you will need to find ways to embrace this conflict, engage in more open and constructive dialogues and thereby build a more collaborative culture.
  1. Get feedback.Making a change isn’t easy. It will require you to become much more honest, accepting and intuitive. And this won’t happen overnight, so give yourself enough time. Like with any other process, it is always a good idea to build in interim checks and get regular feedback. Find someone who you trust and can confide in. Use her different as a sounding board for your plans and ask for regular feedback on the progress you are making.

To really be able to build a strong, collaborative company, we need to get much better at managing passive-aggression. This is a big part of how we can start embracing conflict and working together more effectively. And as the leadership team, we need to role model this.

If you have any thoughts on what it is that we can start doing differently to enable this, then do share them with the rest of the team.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Comments

  • Tejwansh Singh Bedi says:

    Great read sir, amazing thoughts that we need to embrace. Thanks for sharing such amazing thoughts.

  • Himanshu says:

    Thank you for sharing these insights, the more I read, the more I relate.
    I’d like to add a point, usually the passive aggressive people are a by-product of the team/corporate culture (office clique). If the bosses support these kinds of behaviours, the PAs tend to show more instead of subduing their personality, also it’s especially problematic when the PAs are pets of bosses. In my experience, documentation helps a lot for CYA.

    On a different note, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on office cliques and how to manage them.

    Thank you,
    Himanshu

  • Sunita Devrani says:

    Interesting insight.

  • Dr. Manas Sarkar says:

    Very nice article, Vivek. Good guidance to handle such situations/persons. But, sometimes such people do this purposefully and don’t want a closure (that may be their survival strategy). How to handle such a person?

    However, thank you and other senior leaders at Godrej for continuously striving for a good and vibrant culture in Godrej group. I am happy to be a part of this journey in Godrej.

  • alejandro chinni says:

    Very true, Vivek! It is sometimes one of the biggest barriers to building solid teams and cultures.

  • Atish Patil says:

    Hi Sir,

    I am a regular reader of your blog since a few months and like the topics and thoughts you share. To be very frank, so far I believed that being passive-aggressive is only right/acceptable behaviour
    in a corporate environment. This is because there is a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive.

    Someone who is not good at this balance will always agree during meeting on something
    and come back with his final feedback after thinking thoroughly about the decision/topic. This way he avoids being seen as a negative member of team.

    Would like to have your comments to clarify this further. Thank you.

  • K L Rathi says:

    Good Afternoon, Sir. I have seen you at the Philips Ltd AGM in Kolkata. While looking at your profile came to know about this, interesting.

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