Can you stop the Passive Aggressive behavior?

In most organizations, passive aggressive behavior is rampant, especially at the managerial levels.

Passive aggressive behavior occurs in an environment where people don’t feel they can express their true feelings and thoughts, especially the critical or negative ones. So, instead of communicating openly, authentically, courageously and effectively, people tend to pretend that everything is going well, even when in reality they feel irritated, upset and/or angry toward someone or about something that isn’t going well.

People communicate in a positive, politically correct and “respectful” way, even when inside, they feel the opposite. This dissonance creates tension and awkwardness. People feel they have to walk on eggshells around each other, which as we all know is stressful and exhausting.

Unfortunately, the negative impact of a passive aggressive environment goes beyond people walking on eggshells. People also become reluctant and afraid to push back on mission critical topics, address conflict, say what is on their minds or hold others accountable for behaviors and performance. In fact, people often say “yes” to things they don’t agree with for fear of receiving a bad reaction from their superiors, and then they pay lip service to important tasks and initiatives. As a result, productivity is compromised and results suffer. This predicament only perpetuates and increases the passive aggressive behavior, which caused it in the first place.

So, why are people passive aggressive?

Some people believe that passive aggressive behavior is ingrained in certain people’s personality, therefore they will always behave that way. I don’t believe that is the case. I think people behave in passive aggressive ways when they are ambitious and eager to succeed, and at the same time they don’t trust their ability to communicate effectively, or that others are big enough to handle their directness.

Think about it, if you trust your ability to communicate in any circumstance and people’s ability to listen and get it, you would feel quite confident, calm and centered even when dealing with big challenges and tight deadlines. You would feel enabled to express your true feelings, desires, commitments and even criticism in a direct and authentic way. If you hurt people’s feelings you could always clean it up.

But, if you don’t trust your ability to communicate effectively, especially in tense or uncomfortable situations when you need to convey criticism and disagreement, or you fear that if you expressed your frustration and anger, it may get out of hand, or you may get into trouble with your superiors or teammates – how would you behave?

Now, add to that the fact that no one feels comfortable to come out and admit “I don’t trust my ability to communicate” or “I don’t trust that you will handle it.” So, instead of expressing your authentic feelings you could easily pretend that everything is ok. Or you would suppress your true feelings, water down your communication or hold back all together, even if in reality you may want to kill someone.

Pent up emotions, frustrations, and unexpressed communications are like bottled energy. Eventually, they have to be released. The more they stay bottled up, the more likely they are to explode when triggered. Unfortunately, this often happens at the most inappropriate times, in the most unproductive ways. When we “lose it,” it usually creates damage beyond proportion.

So, how do you stop this?

Given that passive aggressive behavior lives as an issue of communication, you have to transform it in the realm of communication. This will take authentic leadership, ownership, commitment, and courage.

If leaders are too afraid to be vulnerable, or they don’t trust themselves to create a more powerful and authentic environment of communication around them, or they are simply too caught up in the passive aggressive behavior themselves, nothing will change. In fact, they will continue to be a part of the problem.

They will most likely hide behind their title and authority in order to control conversations and avoid hearing bad news or criticism, especially about themselves. By doing so, they will perpetuate the issues and drive their team to more passive aggressive behavior.

However, if leaders commit to creating an open, honest environment for communication where people can authentically and directly communicate and express their views, even if things may get a bit messy before they get better, they can stop the passive aggressive behavior and transform it into something more nurturing and productive.

Leaders can create a more powerful environment, and everyone can develop their skills and confidence at communicating effectively. You just need to know that this will take time and it has to start at the top.

Brutal Honesty – Good or Bad?

Living with a courageous and relentless commitment to openness and honesty is a powerful way to live.  

I am not merely saying this because I have personally adopted this commitment in my own life, I am saying it because many times I have seen the power of openness and honesty triumph over resignation, despair, and challenge, as well as nurturing opportunities to build trust and relationships. BUT, I have also seen openness, honesty, and bluntness deeply hurt and deflate people.

People often think that “having no filter”, “calling it as they see it”, and “putting it all out there” are strong leadership virtues. In fact, some cultures – the Dutch for example – pride themselves on their bluntness.

This ‘brutal honesty’ can definitely be a strength when it is delivered in a productive manner.  However, brutal honesty can also be a disaster and an impediment, it can deeply hurt people and leave casualties.

I have seen examples like this multiple times in many companies.   In one of the companies where I coached a sales manager was asked by his boss to represent his country in the weekly regional sales forecast call with the upper-level managers. The economic times were challenging and deals were hard to come by, so everyone on the call was somewhat tense and apprehensive, especially the sales manager’s boss’s boss, who was under tremendous pressure from his superiors to show results.

When it was time for the sales manager to present he didn’t have good news to share, so it didn’t take long before he found himself being questioned, grilled and criticized by those who attended the meeting. Needless to say, he left the call feeling devastated and publically attacked, humiliated and demeaned. His boss’s boss had a different depiction of the incident. His take was: “The sales manager came to the call unprepared so I gave him direct feedback and tried to help him steer his presentation the right way”.

If your openness, honesty, and bluntness don’t make a difference and empower the people you are communicating with, you have missed the mark big time.

People also often equate open, honest and direct communication to “getting it all off their chest“. In fact, in a recent coaching conversation, an executive boasted about the fact that he finally mustered the courage to tell his peer how he really felt about him, after a long period of accumulating pent-up frustrations and resentments about his colleague.  At first, I empathized with his feeling of personal triumph.  He acknowledged that he left the conversation feeling relief, but his colleague seemed quite upset and disheartened.  Also upon further reflection, he admitted that the conversation didn’t address, resolve or improve anything. In fact, it damaged the trust and partnership with his colleague.

Putting it all out there, or getting if all off your chest is the wrong focus.

Making a difference should always be the purpose and focus of any communication. It should guide the approach, angle, style and intensity of all our conversations. If making a difference requires being completely open, honest and blunt, then so be it. But, if being completely open, honest and blunt would hurt, insult, demean or deflate the other person, it may be better not to say anything at all.

A friend of mine, who is teaching university post-graduates, shared with me how her boss adopted the “blunt, no filter” approach.  Her boss, who came from the finance world, did not take into account the less brutal and more “diplomatic” academic world she was now immersed in, as a result his approach was less than successful.  Consequently, my friend confessed to now feeling wary and cautious about bringing issues to the front because of her boss’s unorthodox style.

There are always appropriate, effective and productive ways to communicate, give feedback and express criticism and dissatisfaction – no matter how severe – that elevate and empower the person you are communicating with.

What good is it for you or anyone if people around you are torn down and/or afraid to speak their minds?

Take your head out of the sand

How many times have you participated in a meeting and halfway through it you realized that something important wasn’t being said openly and honestly? Knowing that others knew it, too, but no one said anything.

How many times have you seen managers and employees sit around a meeting table, nodding in agreement as their leader explained the plan for a critical change initiative?  Once the meeting was over, people pushed back their chairs and drifted back towards their desks.  As they congregated at the water cooler, they opened up to each other: “What a pile of crap!”, “That’ll never happen!”, “I can hardly wait until the weekend?”.

By the time these underhanded comments go viral throughout the organization cynicism and quiet rebellion is rampant. In this organization, people will definitely be paying lip service to the organizational mandate.

Meanwhile, their unsuspecting bosses leave the meeting imagining that they have done a wonderful job of communicating their strategy and that people are onboard.

Nothing will undermine a strategy or initiative more effectively than a lack of employee ownership and alignment.

If employees are expressing skepticism and criticism about their leadership and the initiative in “around the water cooler” conversations that is a sure sign that they are not onboard and not aligned with the company’s strategy.

So many leaders and managers simply don’t get it. They think that what people tell them to their face is what people really think. Sometimes that is the simple truth. But, many times it isn’t.

At any time, there are two types of conversations taking place in every organization – one is spoken; what people say out loud. These are often the politically correct things. The other is unspoken. It’s what people only say in private to their close friends and confidants.

When leaders don’t create an environment that fosters genuine openness and honesty people go underground to converse. Instead of addressing the important things out in the open they tend to cover their behinds, blame others for things that are not working well, or they simply become silently frustrated and resigned.  When they have to, they pay lip service to the authorities, but they say only what they believe to be politically correct and safe.

As a result, far too many leaders simply have no idea what their people are really thinking and saying. In fact, many mistake fear and compliance for commitment. As a result, their ability to enlist and engage their people in their vision and strategy is compromised

It takes courage – on both sides – to create an environment of blunt honesty.  Leaders must be willing to hear the unvarnished truth, sometimes about them, and employees must be prepared to express it.  It takes two to tango. However, this has to start with the leaders.

Leaders who learn to listen carefully and engage in blunt and meaningful dialogue with their people will find that the investment of time and effort is deeply worthwhile.  Over time, people will rise to the occasion, abandon the back channel noise and start addressing challenges and opportunities head-on.

In fact, even if the strategy is not optimal, if managers and employees feel they can make a difference and their leaders really want to hear what they have to say, they will go out of their way to make sure it succeeds.

But, in order to succeed leaders have to muster the courage to take their heads out of the sand.


Managing your work-life balance may be easier than you think!

Like many of you, I have a very full and busy schedule with professional and personal commitments, projects, and activities.

I am passionate about achieving all my life goals and even though my professional priorities are extremely demanding I go out of my way to make time for personal commitments like exercising and spending time with my wife and kids.

Trying to manage everything is often an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes it feels overwhelming like I have too much to do and I am not able to get it all covered. Whilst at other times, even when the load is extremely full, I feel that I am completely on top of it with time to spare.

But, no matter how I feel during the rollercoaster ride I seem to always somehow manage to get everything done in a timely and workable manner. Some things seem to go smoothly from the start while other things tend to squeak, push and kick all the way to the end. However, I don’t recall the last time I failed to achieve a significant personal or professional project, deadline or milestone.

When it comes to managing the balance between our professional and personal life there seem to be two dynamics occurring simultaneously. One is the actual events and activities that take place. The other is all the internal self-commentary and self-criticism that accompanies these activities. We often get these two things tangled and confused. Especially when we have a lot on our plate.

For example, my goal is to exercise five times a week, when I am not on the road. I try to keep that routine religiously in order to stay in shape. However, there often seem to be good reasons why I don’t have the time to do it. My internal commentary often sounds like: “Today is not a good day for exercising”, “You are going to miss your deadline if you exercise today”, and “You don’t feel like it anyway”.

When I buy into these considerations and put off my exercising, I always feel frustrated and dissatisfied.

The good news is that I have learned that there is no actual correlation between my internal noise and commentary about what I can or can’t do, and how much I actually get done. In other words, no matter how insistent my internal chatter is, and how convincing its argument is that if I exercise I will miss my other commitments, in reality, most of the time that is simply not the case at all!

As a result, I no longer give credence to the internal commentary. I just let it go on and I go ahead and do what I planned and promised myself to do anyway.

I have learned to trust that if I stay true to my commitments in all areas, and just do what I say, no matter how I feel, I will always manage to get everything done and I feel gratified at the end. 95% of the time that is exactly what happens. In the other 5%, I typically end up renegotiating the deadline or in some instances working longer hours to pull it off on time. But, the long hours routine doesn’t happen often, and things seem to always have a way of working out in the end.

Unfortunately, most people buy into their internal considerations and excuses far too often and quickly. As a result, they stop short of pursuing, carrying out or achieving their objectives. And, most of us also put our professional priorities before our personal ones, so when we are under pressure we tend to sell out on our personal things first.

If you want to manage your life balance more powerfully, here are a few practical tips from my personal experience that could be of help:

  1. Be clear about your personal and professional long-term and short-term commitments and objectives.
    The more you occupy your consciousness with, and focus your intention on your dreams, commitments and goals the less space there will be for noises and excuses.
  2. Schedule clear activities associated with fulfilling your commitments and goals in your calendar.
    Bring your commitments and goals to life by turning them to clear actions and practices that populate your calendar. For example, schedule time for writing the proposal, reading the report, returning calls. Schedule a specific time for exercising three times a week, date night with your spouse, quality time with kids, etc.
  3. Keep to your schedule, no matter what.
    Relate to all commitments as equal. Don’t cancel your exercise or time with your kids because of workload or because you are afraid these will interfere with or jeopardize your success at work.
  4. Say no to others who want to double book things with you in timeslots that are already allocated to other personal or professional commitments.
    Be courteous and responsible about it and offer alternative times for conflicting activities. However, don’t sell out on personal commitments and priorities because of professional ones.

Obviously, things are never perfect. At times you will need to be flexible and innovative, including perhaps rescheduling things or working longer hours to get everything done. However, if you take a stand for having it all, and you manage your schedule with the relentless commitment to never sacrifice or sell out on anything important. And, if you make sure that all your professional and personal commitments are equally accounted for, you will find that the noise has less and less influence over your actions. As a result, your ability to have a well-balanced professional and personal life will keep growing.

Try it and see how it works…

4 powerful principles for successful personal change

Do you have what it takes to change yourself?  

As a part of my job, I have the privilege of coaching many people at all levels of organizations; people who want to become more powerful and effective professionally and personally.

People often have to go through personal changes in how they think and behave in order to reinvent themselves and achieve the next level. I have reinvented myself a few times in my life, and I can share from personal experience, both as a coach and a player, that doing so can be very challenging.

Even when we really want it and we have a clear strategy for change, actually ‘internalizing it’, ‘carrying it out’ and ‘living the change’ are often the most difficult parts of the change. In fact, most people don’t succeed – I am sure you’ve heard the cynical phrases: “A leopard can’t change its spots” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Every reinvention is different. However, there are a few powerful principles and tips that are universal to all types of personal change. They are all in the realm of our mindset, attitude and mental game. If you understand these principles and tips, know what to expect and how to deal with them you will have a higher chance to succeed in your reinvention. Here are four of them:

  • Tolerate things getting worst before they get better – When you take a stand about reinventing yourself the universe listens to your desire and then says: “Let’s see if you are serious about this.” To check you out, it throws you some initial challenges. If you remain positive, on-course and overcome the ‘small’ stuff it then sends you ‘medium’ level barriers. And if you can again stay the course and overcome these, it sends you even bigger challenges. However, if you overcome all levels of obstacles the universe concludes: “Yes, you are for real” and then things begin to change in your favor and you start seeing a momentum towards your desired change. The problem is that most people give up too soon. They don’t stay the course for long enough to get to the other side and reap the rewards.
  • Act and behave in counter-intuitive ways – When the caterpillar emerges from the cocoon during its transformation to becoming a butterfly, there is a moment when everything seems to be confusing and upside down. The caterpillar, who still thinks as a multi-legged slow crawling creature, takes one look at its two legs and two big and heavy wings on its back, and it feels like the world has come to an end. It’s the same for us when we want to change ourselves. If you are a highly-strung, aggressive and driven person, and you are presented with a critical situation, staying calm and not immediately reacting with action could feel quite counter-intuitive. In fact, if you see someone else not responding with action you’re likely to judge them as lazy, complacent, slacking off or dropping the ball. It’s like learning to ski; you start falling to one side and intuitively you want to swing away. But, you are supposed to lean into the fall rather than away from it. In order to reinvent yourself, you have to behave in counter-intuitive ways, stay the course and trust the process.
  • Stay courageousIt’s scary to reinvent yourself. You are in new territory. You go through a roller coaster of emotions including hope, fear, frustration and resignation. And, especially in the down moments your mind constantly tries to persuade you to draw back. It says things like: “It wasn’t a good idea!”, “You’re in over your head!”, and “What were you thinking?”. To succeed you need to stay in the moment, clear from noise. You need to keep reminding yourself to focus on and strive for making progress, not achieving perfection. Winston Churchill said: “Success is moving from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm”. He meant: it is easy to stay the course when everything is in your favor. However, it takes courage to stay the course in the face of challenging emotions or circumstances.
  • ‘Fake it till you make it’ – I came from a small village where the dress code was extremely casual. Needless to say, I’d never worn a suit and tie. When I was a junior consultant at the beginning of my career, I had to wear a suit and tie for all my client engagements. In the first year of my career, I kept having this nagging feeling that I was out of place, out of my league and a phony. But, I played the part, and over time the suit-and-tie image and role grew on me, or I grew on them, and I started to feel more authentic and at home. If I had listened to my feelings and internal noise, I would have never gotten this far. Instead, I took a stand about who I want to be and I faked it till I made it. To succeed you will have to do the same, even if your first steps feel robotic, inauthentic or contrived.