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Is what you’re seeing passive-aggressive?
Picture of Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen

CEO, Culture Consultant, Facilitator

This article was personally written by Simon Thiessen based on over 30 years experience with leadership and workplace culture

Is what you’re seeing passive-aggressive?

Most people in most workplaces are great. But everyone has their moments, some more than others!

When people aren’t at their best, whether that is temporary or ongoing, it’s important for a leader to consider WHY. Because HOW to address the issue depends on WHY it is happening.

Poor behaviour and performance often involve passive-aggressive behaviour.

Is the behaviour you are seeing passive aggressive?

When someone is being passive-aggressive, they are indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. This creates a disconnect between what a person says and what they do.

  • They say they don’t care where you eat lunch, but they make constant mini-criticisms of the choice you made, without coming straight out and saying they don’t like the place.
  • They agree with the way a task or project will be done, but every time there is a problem, they drop hints about an alternative idea they had.
  • They tell you they are happy working with a colleague, but their behaviour is withdrawn.
  • They say they agree with a decision while rolling their eyes and sighing.

As a one-off, passive-aggressive behaviour is annoying, but it may not be overly disruptive. However, passive-aggressive behaviour is usually a pattern, or a default style that someone has learned to use.

The fine line

A person who is behaving passive aggressively is unwilling to speak up about how they feel, but they are also unwilling to let it go. This means they feel compelled to ‘make a statement’ even if it is just to themselves. For example, when they state they are happy with something you have asked them to do, but then ‘quietly’ don’t do it.

The statement is important because it resolves a dilemma for them. They are angry, partly about the situation but often mainly with themselves for not speaking up. But, the statement also creates a problem for them. What if you call them out? What if you point out that the way they are behaving or performing is unacceptable? So, they are very careful about doing and saying things that are difficult to define and that seem trivial when you raise them.

How should you respond?

If you have someone who rarely behaves in a passive aggressive way, as a leader you should work on the reasons. WHY are they unhappy with the situation? Why didn’t they feel able to speak up honestly, as they normally would?

If you are seeing a pattern from an individual, you still need to work on the WHY, but the questions are different.

  • Is your leadership style conducive to people speaking up? If you have some people that speak openly, while others don’t, that may not prove you encourage openness. It may indicate that you have some people who are robust enough to be open despite your style.
  • Is the organisational culture conducive to people being open? Or does it feel pointless (nothing changes anyway) or dangerous (fear of consequences)?
  • Assuming your leadership and the culture are conducive, what’s going on for this person? Do they lack the confidence or skills to be open about their thoughts? Is this a pattern of behaviour they have used for a long time and that no-one has called them out on?

Whatever the reason for the behaviour, don’t be sucked into the trap of ‘just letting it go’. While individual passive-aggressive behaviours may not do much harm, the overall pattern of behaviour is toxic and destructive.

If you need more strategies, look out for our free Plenty in 20 series of webinars, and especially for the next one that addresses leading passive aggressive behaviour.