From the beginning of (workplace) time, passive aggressive behaviour has been used as a defence mechanism by people wanting to be left alone. It can be stressful, frustrating and just plain annoying, especially when you’re trying to get something done.
Passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace is often tolerated because it isn’t overtly aggressive and therefore is much harder to spot and to call out. It’s also harder to challenge openly without looking like a raving lunatic… “I’m furious because Sarah didn’t respond to my email!”
Merriam-Webster defines passive-aggressive as:
“Being, marked by, or displaying behaviour characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness)”.
Spotting passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace
There are several common ways that you might observe passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace. But watch out…some of these things might not be passive-aggressive behaviour, they might just be a sign that somebody is too busy to respond to you or take action. That’s why this is so tricky!
Non-response: Someone that you’re dealing with doesn’t respond to your meeting request, email or phone calls. The genius of this method is that since everybody can say they’re “busy”, you second-guess yourself thinking that maybe they just haven’t got around to it yet…I’ll just wait another day…
Agreement, followed by no action: Somebody agrees with your course of action and even seems enthusiastic, but when you’ve left the room, nothing seems to get done.
Agreement, followed by poor execution: When somebody needs to do a task for you, sometimes they’ll even do a poor quality job so that you won’t bother them with it again.
Passive-aggressive people are horrible right? You’d never want to work with someone like that would you? Well, I don’t believe that people want to behave like this – it takes certain circumstances for this behaviour to appear.
Common reasons for passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace
There are a number of reasons that you might be the target of passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace and here are some of them.
People don’t respect you
If someone reports to you but doesn’t respect you, likely they’re going to resent doing work for you. It might be because you’re younger or less experienced (see here for dealing with this) and they believe they should have your job. The only way to get around this is to build trust, which takes time and effort. This will benefit both of you – nobody likes being passive-aggressive and nobody likes receiving that attitude. Alternatively, you could just leave them alone, but that’s not likely to lead to anything getting done, unless you do it all yourself.
When people don’t work for you, and have other things to do
If you’re working on a project and require help from people in another team, often for them, any request will seem like it comes out of nowhere. They have a day job and now you’re trying to make them do your work as well. This sort of situation is going to end badly especially if you don’t provide adequate notice to the other party.
People are not on-board with what you’re trying to accomplish
It’s worth remembering that just because you think what you’re doing is a good idea, others may not hold the same view. In your team, you’ve probably brought people along on a journey, gradually gaining support for your approach. If somebody has no knowledge of the history of your project and hasn’t been involved before, you probably need to do some work to ensure that the context has been explained so that people can understand the reasons behind what you’re doing.
Ways to deal with passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace
Get in their face
No, I don’t mean intimidate the other person. I mean you should meet with them in person wherever possible to break down communication barriers and to try to get buy-in. Generally, people are more likely to ignore somebody who never appears in person or even calls on the phone. It’s also easy for people to think that other teams are incompetent when there is no personal contact. Like I explained in a guest post here: http://www.mycareertopia.com/everyone-incompetent/.
If the passive-aggressor doesn’t report to you, make sure you talk to their boss first about what you’re doing. Gain their endorsement for your approach and then start talking to their team. Without this, you may fight an uphill battle trying to get anyone to help you.
Be persistent and friendly
Usually, passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace is a defence mechanism, designed to convince you to leave a person alone. If you give up after trying a few times, then the passive-aggressor has “won”. If you really need their help, then it pays to be persistent.
Start with email, then try phone calls and in-person conversations. Eventually it will become obvious that you are not going away. It might even be easier for the other person to help you than try to avoid you. An important addition to this advice is that you should be friendly. Try not to show that you’re annoyed – remember why they might be acting this way, as described above. If the other person continues to refuse to help a friendly, reasonable person, then they will soon appear to be obstructive. A position which will leave them at risk of being criticised or reprimanded for their behaviour.
In this article we’ve seen some examples of passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace, some possible causes and solutions. It can be uncomfortable and annoying to deal with passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace. However, it is usually temporary and can be cured with persistent, positive action. Part of being a great communicator is dealing with passive-aggression. As a leader, I’m sure you’ll come across it at some point!