Passive aggressive behaviour can quickly amount to a much bigger problem if it’s not nipped in the bud early on. Here’s how you can rectify their behaviour.
When an employee within the financial services industry felt their point of view was being ignored, they sat in meetings with their arms crossed, rolling their eyes.
Although the manager had the right to feel frustrated by the employee’s passive aggressive behaviour, they responded in a counter-productive way: by no longer inviting the employee to meetings.
This only cemented the employee’s view that their perspective wasn’t being valued.
“That’s when I got involved,” says Karen Gately, Director of Corporate Dojo. “The employee and their manager were in a complete stand-off. The manager didn’t have the energy to deal with the situation, and the employee was digging their heels in.”
Gately says she comes across employees behaving in a passive aggressive manner “all the time”, so she’s well-versed in helping managers respond to this behaviour and offering advice to help employees express negative emotions in a more productive way.
“The person on the receiving end either arks up or becomes passive aggressive. The two people don’t have honest conversations, step back from making decisions, and don’t achieve favourable outcomes.
“The more we tolerate these ways of working, the more it becomes part of the norm. It creates an unacceptable standard, which undermines everyone’s efforts. When things go left unsaid, issues build and often spiral into a bigger problem.”
Gately shares tips on how to keep a lid on passive aggressive behaviour in the workplace, and what to do if you spot signs of it emerging.
Addressing passive aggressive behaviour
Passive aggressive behaviour is subtle and can be hard to spot. Regardless of the specific behaviours, such as withdrawing from a conversation, rolling eyes in response to comments made, using sarcasm to avoid confrontation, continual complaining, purposely making mistakes, it all amounts to more subtle behaviour instead of tackling an issue head-on.
“People don’t speak out and express what they are feeling. It’s any behaviour that is pushing back but isn’t directly expressed.”
In the example mentioned above, Gately stepped in by coaching the manager and the employee to communicate more effectively.
“It was about helping them both to bring helpful communication to the conversation. I encouraged the manager to sit down and have a conversation with the individual as a starting point, to explain that their point of view matters, but the way in which they express themselves also matters.”
This provided a space for the manager to reiterate the team member’s value, while also highlighting specific behaviours that were causing issues in the team.
“They said: ‘It’s clear that you’re not in a good headspace. Help me understand what’s going on. There are times you haven’t seemed happy and you’ve made comments that make me think there are issues you want to put on the table.’ You need to take a firm but empathetic approach. [Show them that their behaviour is not helping them to be a collaborative team.”
The manager also owned up to the role they played in the situation.
“They acknowledged that there have been times when they’ve excluded the other person from conversations that they should’ve been at the table for.
The manager taking responsibility for their own misgivings encouraged the employee to bring down their defensiveness as well.
“It created an opportunity for the person to acknowledge that they had been bringing a negative energy to the room. They said they weren’t feeling heard.”
Together the manager and the employee negotiated an agreement which made clear that if the employee was feeling unheard in the future, the two of them would set time aside to unpack the situation.
“They needed to reset the tone”
What lies beneath their behaviour?
Passive aggressive behaviour often shows up when someone lacks emotional skills, says Gately.
“Oftentimes people don’t have that self-awareness to realise when they aren’t being open and constructive in their communication,” she says.
“It can also be related to a lack of confidence where someone doesn’t know how to push back or speak up. They might want to make their point known, but they don’t have the requisite skills or confidence to do that.”
This is where coaching them on how to raise issues in a non-confrontational way can help. Or it might be helpful for them to enroll in training – AHRI offers a short course on how to have difficult conversations.
An employee should also know how they stand to benefit from addressing their passive aggressive behaviour. This can give them added motivation to change their behaviour.
“For the individual, the benefit is that they are more likely to feel heard, have influence, and have their point of view taken into account in decision-making. By recognising those benefits, you’re helping them to see there’s a reason for them to lean into the discomfort.”
Creating an open culture at work
Passive aggressive behaviour can take root when the working environment lacks psychological safety.
For instance, if a manager doesn’t respond well to negative feedback, or doesn’t have the necessary soft skills to manage an employee’s anger or sadness, that can deter an employee from speaking up, causing more subtle behaviours to rise to the surface.
“Managers have to manage their own responses so that when people speak up, they don’t fear being reprimanded or shut down,” says Gately.
Another strategy that can help is negotiating expectations for effective communication as a team from the outset.
“What mindsets do we all want to sign up to? Through that process, the team might agree that they’re going to speak up, be constructive, respectful and honest,” says Gately.
“Look in the mirror as a team and check in with yourselves regularly: what behaviours do we bring that are enabling us? Are there barriers that are preventing our success? How are we holding each other accountable?”
Teams are very focused on expectations around outcomes and results, and this same mindset should be applied to expectations for managing conflict at work, says Gately.
“Some organisations have a more formalised conflict-resolution approach, but what’s often more powerful is having that common agreement that conflict inevitably happens, and when it does, how will you respectfully resolve this it?”