“I’m at my wits’ end,” my client said during our monthly call, and he explained how frustrating interpersonal dynamics were hobbling his team, making them work smaller and less creatively. Mostly, he said, the problem was caused by a talented but difficult middle manager.
“Instead of encouraging everyone to go for the best, he’s intimidating the staff out of innovating. He gripes through meetings instead of acting like a member of my leadership team — all while claiming he’s trying to ensure we’re doing our best!” my client told me. “It’s becoming a nightmare for the team — and for me — to deal with him.”
It’s hard to maintain momentum when your leaders don’t act like team players! But I reassured my client that passive-aggressive behavior like this can be improved and managed, if not completely eliminated.
Picking Up on the Pattern
Passive-aggression usually stems from past experiences in which someone felt punished or censured for overt disagreement or not satisfying an authority, and as a result, has never felt safe or comfortable with direct confrontation since then. In the workplace, this pattern can show up if employees are fearful that they won’t be successful, have trouble defending their own territory, and don’t believe their manager will back them up.
This particular middle manager was trying to control events without confronting people directly by deflecting other’s needs, and nudging them to self-censor. When colleagues asked for his input or needed his cooperation, he would try to put them off by rolling his eyes, crossing his arms, sighing, snorting, and making dismissive or cutting comments after the fact, when they couldn’t respond.
Taken individually, passive-aggressive behaviors can seem so minor and childish that both peers and leaders may try to overlook them. But there are practical steps you can take to turn the tide of covert negativity and stonewalling — and the sooner the better.
6 Tips to Move from Impasse to Improvement
- Point out that to be successful, they need to focus on what will contribute to the business, not on what feels like it’s “about me.” Instead of giving general feedback, which is easily ignored, match your comments to the specifics of your team member’s behavior, and give concrete details.
- Share your observations: “I notice that you didn’t bring up your objection when the group was discussing it and they asked for your opinion, but then you got very negative and critical once the decision was made.” Make it clear that this isn’t personal or about personality or style — it’s about getting the work done effectively. Then state your confidence that the individual has the talent and commitment to do that.
- Ask what they’ve been thinking. Passive-aggressive people often have compelling reasons for their perspective even if they don’t know how to express them effectively. Emphasize that their views matter, and that it’s appropriate to flag a problem, but that it must be done neutrally and productively.
- Show empathy for their concerns, acknowledge what’s bothering them, and then delineate clearly which behaviors are not acceptable: “I can see what you reacted to. Here’s an acceptable way of getting your point across…”
- Make it clear that you’ll be consistent about putting the real issues on the table and checking on them: “Are you venting? Or is there something we need to do about this?” Apply tough love as necessary: “It’s hard for the team to treat you as a member of management when you seem sullen or like you want to punish someone.” Ask if there’s a leader or someone else they admire, and discuss how that person might act in this circumstance.
- Model kindness, directness, and clarity while you maintain your expectations for improvement and your vigilance about enforcing your directives. Show that you can be unhappy and dissatisfied with something — like their behavior — and still behave like a pro in a classy way that moves the situation forward.
Onward and upward,