A friend of mine contacted me the other day about an issue she was experiencing in the workplace. The ‘problem’ – one of handling passive-aggressive behaviour in the office – caught my attention. I was reminded of the many times I had personally experienced passive-aggression when I worked as a senior manager in a large organisation. This behaviour was typically from male managers, but occasionally I also experienced this from female leaders too.
So let me tell you more about passive-aggressive behaviour and some strategies for how to handle it.
Firstly, let me explain what Passive-Aggression is:
I’m sure you are familiar with classic assertiveness. This is where we are confident and share our opinions, thoughts and feelings with respect for the other person. People who struggle with assertiveness are usually either passive or aggressive. Passive people struggle to voice their wants, needs and desires. Passive people believe where others are more important than themselves.
Aggression on the other hand comes from a belief that my opinions, wants and needs are more important than another. (Behaviour includes being pushy, direct, controlling).
As the label ‘passive-aggression’ suggests, this is where someone expresses their anger indirectly. They believe that they cannot share their anger or frustration and do it in more subtle ways.
Most passive-aggressive people suffer from:
- Poor self image
- An inability to express their feelings
- An intense dislike of conflict
Where does Passive-Aggression come from?
According to psychologists, passive-aggressive was once recognised as a mental disorder. The phrase first came about after World War II. Soldiers who wanted to avoid combat without being openly disobedient. But it became so common that it was no longer in the ‘Bible of Mental Health’. As with a lot of unhelpful behaviour, passive aggression comes from our childhood.
Specifically individuals who experienced:
- A parent who punished them for showing aggression
- Living with a dominant / controlling parent
- The family not valuing a child’s needs or wants
Essentially, there is a deep routed fear of what might happen if they express their feelings. This creates an odd blend of behaviour that is very subtle. That feeling you get when you hear a remark that you think was undermining you, but it was quite so overt as that. Or it can be more overt such as a clear put down.
Passive Aggressive Behaviour in the Workplace
Passive aggressive behaviour exists for many reasons. There seem to be two core factors at play:
- A perceived threat to autonomy. Will you expose their weaknesses?
- A fear that you might outshine them and take away their bonuses or pay raises
Here are some obvious signs:
- Finding fault
- Demeaning others
With passive aggression, there are also more subtle signs. For example:
- Appearing to be in agreement but behind the scenes doing everything in their power to sabotage
- Is positive in front of you and then undermines you once you have left the room
- Tells you that you can trust them and then their behaviour and words clearly show that they don’t
- Uses sarcasm with the intent of ‘I was only messing around’ if they are challenged
- Postponing or procrastinating on a decision – anything that frustrates colleagues / bosses. He / she then claim that the boss has unrealistic expectations.
So, What Can You Do With Passive-Aggressive?
This is by no means a magic formula. Passive-aggressive behaviour, as mentioned above can be a deep routed condition that may never shift. But here are a few thoughts to help you if you are faced with passive-aggressive behaviours in the workplace.
1) You can’t change the behaviour of a Passive Aggressive. Period.
2) You can change the way you feel about working with them.
3) Start to pay more attention to what they do than what they say
4) Hold them accountable for their results not their promises
5) Inhale before you react
6) Work on your own self talk: ‘They’ can’t make you feel a certain way, act or react in a certain way.
7) Ask them directly for their concerns in front of others (so you have witnesses to their reaction)
8) Keep your expectations clear and put them in writing
9) Ensure you have a paper trail
10) Don’t let the other distort the truth. Stand up for what you believe to be true and stick to your guns.
Sandra Green is the founder of Handbags in the Boardroom – enabling women to achieve their career ambitions. She provides on-line learning; networks, seminars and coaching programmes for women. Having worked in a number of different corporations, Sandra has first hand experience of the challenges women experience.