Passive-aggressive behaviour is aggressive behaviour in another form. Aggression is when a person openly shows aggressiveness as a reaction to what has happened or what you did or said. Passive-aggressive behaviour, on the other hand is aggression that is not openly and directly shown. In fact, people who are passive-aggressive often use underhand, silent and manipulative tactics to get what they want. And passive-aggressive behaviour can be far more destructive to an organization or team than open aggression.
Some common examples of passive-aggressive behaviour include:
- Appearing to agree with something but not doing what was asked, or not doing it correctly.
- Indirect criticism such as backhanded compliments
- Sarcasm or inappropriate humour
- Criticising people behind their backs
- Agreeing to do something then continually moaning about it
- Spreading rumours, innuendos and gossip
- Being disinterested and not willing to engage
- Feigned surprise or indignation on being challenged about their behaviour
Because passive-aggressive behaviour is not openly shown or expressed, managers and business leaders do not always know when an employee is being passive-aggressive. Most often, people who have passive-aggressive behaviour are resentful about something, but, for whatever reasons, are unable or unwilling to express this anger directly. Some may even deliberately try to mask this anger, for example, by smiling or pretending to go along with the idea.
There are significant costs and risks with passive-aggressive behaviour to you, your team and your organisation. These costs include:
- Inefficiency and decreased productivity
When an employee is passive-aggressive, they often don’t carry out their full responsibilities. Generally, they intentionally forget deadlines and are intent on avoiding taking on new tasks. As a result, they become inefficient and, eventually, productivity decreases.
- Seeking or plotting revenge
A common characteristic of passive-aggressive employees is to plot indirect revenge. Because they cannot directly show their anger, they spend their time thinking of ways to seek revenge as an indirect way to release or express their anger. For example, they try to quietly spread a rumour about a colleague whom they are not in good terms with. Some passive aggressive employees may withhold information or distort the truth with the aim of undermining a project or plan that they do not agree with.
- Conflicts between employees, team leaders and team members arise
Passive-aggressive behaviour may cause other employees to start creating conflicts with their colleagues. They would rather start a fight than settle their dispute the right way, which is to lodge a complaint with HR or speak to the head or the leader of that team.
- Slow decision making
When a team leader is surrounded by passive-aggressive employees, the process of decision making is slowed down as he has to resolve the conflicts created by these employees within the organization. Before a decision can be made, the leader needs to closely look at each situation to find the appropriate solution.
- Ineffective communication
Because passive-aggressive employees do not openly show that they disagree and often mask their anger or resentment, communication within the organization is affected. Other employees are unable to effectively communicate with them and they rarely reach out with their true feelings. As a result, an organization may seem alright and doing well to their clients, but, the organisation is actually broken, which may lead to poor results or low-quality service.
Dealing with passive-aggressive employees
Once you have identified that someone is behaving in a passive aggressive manor then it is important that you confront the employee immediately and discuss the facts. Avoid talking about something that you heard from another employee, rather focus on observable and specific facts. Remember to talk about the real behaviour or attitude that you saw or can prove with evidence rather than rely on hear-say or rumours that may be circulating.
It helps if you show direct and honest communication when speaking with a passive-aggressive employee. By showing that you have the time to listen and discuss why the person behaved or acted that way, you also show the employee how to be open with their true feelings and directly discuss their anger and disagreement.
Because you are the team leader, it is critical that you do not show passive-aggressive behaviour yourself. If you want to eliminate passive-aggressive behaviour within your organization, you need to take the first step and become a role model of open and honest communication.
It also helps if you regularly evaluate your employees and spend time to discuss whatever it is that is bothering them. Your employees should feel free and confident to turn to you when they feel upset or when they disagree about something. You are in fact creating a safe environment for them to speak their concerns and air their issues. This helps prevent them from spilling into passive-aggressive behaviour.
Passive aggressive behaviour is relatively common in organisations. It has significant costs associated with it and it can lead to poor communication, dysfunctional teams and project overruns. As a leader it is important that you recognize and deal with passive aggressive behaviour as soon as you become aware that something is wrong.
If you have found this article interesting and wished to develop greater Assertive Communication Skills, we are running a workshop in Perth on the 7th of August and 15th of October as well as in Darwin on 21st of October.