Direct Talk About Passive-Aggression

Eric StutzmanConflict Resolution0 Comments

Passive-aggressiveness is one of the most frustrating behaviours we face in our colleagues or clients.  I believe that when we fail to address this behaviour, it creates big problems.

So let us be clear about what passive-aggressive behaviour does: It undermines and sabotages our relationships. Ultimately it inhibits our organization’s ability to achieve its purpose.  Passive-aggressiveness should never be tolerated in the workplace.  We need to address it when we see it.

As many of us have experienced, the very nature of passive-aggressiveness makes it difficult to address because the person who is acting passive-aggressively is deliberately trying to mask their aggression in agreement or politeness. Here are four steps to deal with passive-aggressiveness.

Step One – Understand the Behaviour & Create Safety

Over the years, I have learned that if we want to deal with passive-aggressiveness, we need to start by understanding where it comes from.  Fundamentally, passive-aggressive behaviour stems from someone’s feeling that it is unsafe (or unacceptable) for them to express their disagreement or anger directly.  Think about that for a moment – the person who is acting passive-aggressively feels unsafe.

This means we need to start our approach to dealing with the behaviour by creating as much psychological safety as we can for our conversation.  For starters, think about where and when to meet, and how to connect with respect and openness.

Step Two – Focus on Actions not Character

Part of creating psychological safety means shifting our focus from:

Character judgment – e.g. “You are passive-aggressive.”

To:

Objective description of actions – e.g., “At the meeting you didn’t raise concerns; then after the meeting you sent an email detailing why the project would fail.”

People may argue about their character, but they will find it harder to argue with objective or factual reporting.

Step Three – Discuss Intent and Impact

As we describe what happened, we can invite the other person to comment on the intention behind their action. In all likelihood, they will have justified their action in their own mind in a positive way.  As we listen, we need to be prepared to summarize what we hear – and then share with them what the impact of their actions were on us or the organization (despite their best intention!).

Step Four – Discuss the Future

We need to conclude our conversation by moving to a discussion of what we prefer for future interaction.  Focus on building a plan for acceptable ways of handling disagreement and anger in the future.

Finally, we need prepare to have more than one conversation.  Passive-aggressive behaviour is often a pattern learned early in life as a survival mechanism.  Some children learn that if they speak their mind, they get hurt.  Passive-aggressiveness may keep them safe.  The problem is, as adults that same pattern will get them into trouble in the workplace.  We will do our colleagues and clients a favour if we can help them shift their patterns towards direct and open ways of dealing with disagreement and anger in the workplace.

I would like your feedback on these steps. I’m also curious to hear how others have addressed passive-aggressiveness in effective ways.

This blog is a sample from an upcoming book by ACHIEVE Publishing. The book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. We hope you participate in the short survey – we would love to hear your input.

Eric Stutzman, Managing Director,
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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