Passive-aggressive behaviour is simply 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 underhanded, 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 and visible aggression.
Some of the most 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 and gossip.
- Being disinterested and not willing to engage.
- Feigned surprise and indignation at being challenged about their behaviour.
- Isolating others or excluding people from meetings or social events
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.
How does passive-aggressive behaviour negatively affect your organisation?
There are costs and risks of passive-aggressive behaviour to you, your team, your clients and your organisation. These costs include: –
1. 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. This could show up as presenteeism or increased absenteeism.
2. Seeking or plotting revenge
One of the common characteristics 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 with whom they are not on good terms. 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. This includes white-anting another colleague or team member.
3. Conflicts between employees, team leaders and team members arise, and people don’t feel psychologically safe dealing with the situation
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. People bypass conflict resolution processes because they don’t feel they have the skills, or they don’t feel safe to try and resolve it themselves. People often lodge a complaint with HR or speak to the leader of that team as the first step.
4. Slow decision making
When a team leader is surrounded by passive-aggressive employees, the process of decision-making is slowed down as they have to try and 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.
5. 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 talk to 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 explore the intention behind the behaviour or attitude that you saw rather than rely on hearsay or rumours that may be circulating throughout the organization.
It helps if you show direct and honest communication when speaking with a passive-aggressive employee. It is also important to understand the intention behind the behaviour rather than assume that you know why. By showing that you have the time to listen and to discuss why the person behaved or acted that way, you also show the employee that you care. It is only when the employee feels safe to discuss how they feel that you will hear the real story. Psychological safety is important in any difficult conversation like this.
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 touch base with your employees and spend time with them and provide them with honest feedback about the impact that their behaviour and communication is having on others.
It is vital that all employees can speak up and talk about whatever it is that is bothering them. Ideally, you want your employees to feel safe and confident to turn to you when they feel upset or when they disagree about something. You have a duty of care to maintain a psychologically safe workplace for people. People need to feel safe to speak their concerns and to air their issues. This helps prevent them from spilling into passive-aggressive behaviour.
When dealing with employees it is important to be mindful that one of the biggest risks as a leader is that employees start to see you as the fix-it person. They start to complain to you about other team members because they feel that they don’t have the skills and the confidence to handle the situation.
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.
Calling out passive-aggressive behaviour in yourself and others requires a high level of accountability in the workplace. You must be prepared to give people a safe space where they feel listened to. People need honest feedback. Dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour requires you to invest in coaching and training in yourself and the team.