We laugh at passive aggressive behavior on sitcoms, tune in for more on reality TV, and read the snarkiness on social media. Nonetheless, it’s no laughing matter in the workplace.
Passive aggressive behavior includes actions, inactions, and comments intended to do harm but is indirect. People who exhibit passive aggressive behaviors also tend to feel helpless or powerless in their lives, and use their passive aggressiveness as a way to cope.
Examples include: forgetting to do things, not following through, spreading rumors, giving the silent treatment, making sarcastic comments intended to send a message, and complaining about others to everyone but the person himself. In short, passive aggressiveness boils down to presenting yourself one way and behaving another to intentionally “stick it” to someone else.
On an individual level, passive aggressiveness increases uncertainty, leads to poor self-esteem and poor working relationships, and consequently, leads to lower trust, increased stress, and lower productivity. On a companywide basis, it can slow down decision-making and the execution of important initiatives.
Unfortunately, many managers are uncertain how to address this type of behavior because it seems so petty and elusive. Here, are a few tips for creating a workplace with minimal passive aggressiveness:
Expect and model forthright communication.
To avoid allowing passive aggressive behavior in your company, make sure you are a role model of healthy, respectful disagreement with curiosity about other perspectives. You can do this in a public way in your meetings by setting ground rules and behavioral norms about having full discussions in meetings where everyone is expected to contribute and acknowledging the sensitivity or contention of some issues as well as the importance of discussing those issues openly.
Highlight minority or dissenting perspectives and opinions.
Intentionally, ask those who hold an unpopular perspective to talk about their assumptions underlying their viewpoint and about the implications that will follow if their solution is or isn’t followed. By doing this, it makes it easier to craft a final decision that might accommodate differing perspectives. You can also troubleshoot the decision the group finally makes but anticipating what might go wrong. This allows those who see the weaknesses of the decision to be able to contribute.
Call it like you see it.
When passive aggressive body language, humor, gossip, or complaints about others come to your attention, you must acknowledge the behavior and dig a little deeper to find out what’s behind the behavior. Voicing concern that the person is choosing an indirect way of bringing up the issue is a place to start. Then, ask questions about why they chose an indirect way of settling the issue versus addressing the issue head on. You can then guide them to use more appropriate ways of interacting with others to get what they ultimately want.
Passive aggressive behavior is probably more common than appropriately assertive behavior and can be one of the most destructive elements to a healthy company culture. This is certainly one time when being “nice” won’t work out for your company in the long run.