How to manage passive aggressive behavior

by | Feb 11, 2016

Best solutions for passive aggressive behavior

Passive aggressive behaviour is rooted in insecurity, fear of conflict and very often anger.  It is very damaging for a team and challenging for all, especially the manager.

Read: How to identify a passive aggressive colleague.

Because women are often discouraged from expressing anger overtly, or may have been traumatized by an abusive person or situation in the past, passive aggression can quite often be exhibited by women. The workplace also fosters dishonest communication and phrases like, "suck it up and get on with it" and the "angry smile" between clenched teeth are not uncommon. But what we are talking about here is an a pattern of behaviour which is described in Psychology Today as"a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger” that is toxic and damaging to workplace culture.

What steps can a manager take to deal with passive aggressive behavior?

#1. Name it

The worst leadership tactic is to be slack or relaxed about the behavior. Very often work arounds are created to put the individual in a role where they can do the least damage. This damage limitation approach is a band aid on  a wound that needs stitches. They are essentially being paid for doing nothing or very little and certainly what they were hired to do . This creates resentment in the team.  Passive aggressive behaviour is a power play, and needs to be treated as such. The person is sticking their finger up at you with a smile, or a sulk, on their faces. Being seen to tolerate it weakens your position as a leader.

Signup for our Leadership Coaching program which will to help you develop the skills you need to deal with passive aggressive situations in your team.

#2. Be clear about their role and their KPIs.

If possible get her to sign off on a written document about her responsibilities. Be specific about your expectations and the consequences of failing to deliver. The passive aggressive person will leverage any unintended nuance. Don't say "Work towards close of business on Monday " Say "5.30 p.m. Monday 21st January, without fail."

#3. Use assertive, but constructive communication

Here assertive communication and authoritative body language are key. It's not necessary to raise your voice in an accusatory way. In fact, it's best keep a moderate voice, but use powerful language. Don't blame, but explain the consequences of her behaviour on you, the team and the business. Read: Assertive Communication

#4. Show empathy

Recognise the potential in the individual and how this pattern of behavior is sabotaging her ability to effectively contribute to the business and her own success. If she has achievement stories reference them. Establish what was different when she was able to produce good work.

#5.  Define and communicate your limits

Put a timeline on a period during which she should strive to achieve a change in her behaviour. Explain that it could impact her eventual function within the group, when you will have to reassess her role. It's important (and difficult) to combine empathy, boundary setting and the possibility of serious consequences. Plan what you intend to say.

#6 Confirm in writing

[Tweet "People who exhibit passive aggressive behavior thrive on ambiguity."] They will use it to their advantage. Be as specific in writing as you were verbally. Make sure you are succinct and clear. Seek guidance from your H.R. function or legal department for any potential legal situation if you are setting our conditions which impact a contract. The passive aggressive will always find excuses. "It's not my fault I was sick /my car broke down/my dog had an accident, the day before the deadline"

Passive aggressive behaviour damages team morale and is bad for business. It's covert hostility and power playing and should be treated as such.

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