4 June 2024

Subtle negativity – confronting passive aggression

| Kim Treasure
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two passive-aggressive women sitting at their office desks

Passive-aggressive behaviour can damage relationships and outcomes, and harm a team’s dynamics. Photo: Workplace-woes.

One of the most difficult situations facing a leader is dealing with a team member who is acting passive-aggressively. Michelle Gibbings has advice on identifying and countering this often insidious behaviour.

At some point in your career, you may encounter a team member or colleague who is acting passive-aggressively.

You can sense an underlying tension or aggression, but it’s not communicated directly. Instead, the behaviour is indirect and sometimes covert.

The person expresses feelings and thoughts about situations in a way that’s often unhelpful.

Instead of directly addressing the issue, tension or conflict, they’ll resort to tactics such as procrastinating, going slowly or not completing tasks effectively.

They may withhold information, be sarcastic or make subtle digs, and give you the ‘’silent treatment’’.

Inside, they harbour resentment, feelings of injustice and dissatisfaction. They are emotionally distant, even hostile.

Ultimately, their approach damages relationships and outcomes, and harms the team’s dynamics.

Working with such people can be complex. If you confront them about the issue, they will likely deny that anything is wrong.

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They’ll seek to excuse, deflect or blame others or feign ‘‘nothing to see here’’.

There are various schools of thought as to why this behavioural pattern emerges.

For some researchers, it’s a defence mechanism that people use to deal with unresolved inner conflicts they don’t have the ability or willingness to express directly.

For example, they don’t want to face uncomfortable emotions, so they use this behavioural strategy to protect themselves.

Others see it as a more learned behavioural trait, whereby the person draws from past situations where directly expressing their emotions hasn’t been accepted and has led to negative consequences.

For example, when a person feels powerless to express how they feel and fears the consequences of doing so, taking a passive-aggressive approach can help them feel they have some influence or more control.

Spotting the warning signs of passive-aggressiveness can be difficult, particularly since they can be subtle and often indirect.

However, given the negative impact they can have, you want to be alert to their presence.

Here are a few indicators that are often indicative of this type of behaviour.

Your team member doesn’t directly communicate dissatisfaction or concerns about issues. Instead, they rely on gossip, hinting, back-channelling and sarcasm.

Your team member fails to take accountability for their actions, and when things go wrong, they seek to deflect and blame others.

Your team member actively undermines other colleagues by spreading rumours, gossiping, and questioning work in a deliberately unhelpful way.

Your team member doesn’t raise concerns about change or issues with you, and instead raises them one-on-one with colleagues and seeks to destabilise or subtly resist change efforts.

Of course, spotting these signs will be even more complicated if your team members don’t trust you.

If your leadership style is causing some of the team’s passive-aggressiveness, then you have a lot of work to do.

Simply hoping that the passive-aggressive behaviour will go away won’t help. Neither does ignoring the impact such behaviour has on team morale and dynamics, and your team’s outcomes.

First, you want to acknowledge what’s happening. Address the behaviour directly and in a non-confrontational manner.

Use “I” statements to express your observations and feelings without blaming the team member.

For example, you might say: “I’ve noticed some tension, and I’d like to understand what’s happening.”

It’s crucial to approach the situation with empathy and a genuine desire to understand and resolve the underlying issues.

Don’t jump to conclusions about the cause of their behaviour and avoid labelling it. Telling someone you think they are being passive-aggressive won’t help you.

Be calm, professional, clear and direct about the concerning behaviour. Instead of making general statements, outline specific examples of the behaviour that is concerning you, highlighting its impacts on them, you, and the team.

In your conversation, nurture a safe and open space to talk. Encourage them to express their feelings and thoughts.

It helps to recognise that behaviour of this nature is often a sign of underlying issues or stress, so offer support and create the space for them to be heard.

At the appropriate time, you will want to outline the consequences for continuing behaviour that is not in line with the organisation’s and team’s values and ways of working.

It’s essential to accept that conversations of this nature are not ‘‘one and done’’.

You’ll likely need to set the groundwork for the conversation, then have a series of discussions to uncover the root cause and agree on strategies to help your team member shift their approach.

While these strategies are focused on individual efforts, you should consider the steps you take to foster a positive and inclusive team environment.

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This environment is one where transparency, empathy, respect and cooperation are valued, and team members support each other and hold to those agreed standards.

The right team environment will reduce the likelihood of passive-aggressive behaviour emerging.

Also, remember that your behaviour sets the standard.

You want to be a role model for transparency, directness and clear communication, and consistently demonstrate your adeptness at addressing issues constructively.

As Australian film director and writer John Power said: “Communication works for those who work at it.”

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated. This article first appeared at https://www.changemeridian.com.au/latest-news/.

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