In most organizations, passive aggressive behavior is rampant.
The dictionary defines passive aggressive as: a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials.
In reality, passive aggressive behavior is actually much worse than this definition suggests.
Typical passive aggressive behavior happens in environments where people don’t feel they can fully express their feelings and thoughts–especially the negative ones. So, instead of communicating openly, authentically, courageously and effectively, people tend to pretend that everything is going well, even when they really feel the opposite – irritated, upset and/or angry about what is going on.
They say the positive, politically correct things out loud in the most positive, politically correct and “respectful” manner. But inside, they feel otherwise. This dissonance between the spoken and unspoken conversations creates tension, stress and awkwardness and people often feel they have to walk on eggshells around each other.
Because people who are behaving in a passive aggressive manner make such a big effort to appear as if they are positive about things, they often feel no one is noticing that they are inauthentic. However, for the most part, everyone around them sees through their behavior.
In a passive aggressive environment, the problems go beyond simply walking on eggshells. People also become reluctant and afraid to push back on sensitive topics, address conflict or hold each other accountable for behaviors and performance. People often say “yes” to things and then pay lip service to these. As a result productivity is significantly compromised and undermined.
Some people behave in a passive aggressive manner because they are afraid of their own volatile reactions to challenging situations. They don’t trust their ability to communicate effectively, especially when it comes to conveying criticism and disagreement. They fear that if they really express themselves, especially their frustration and anger, it will get out of hand. Others are afraid that if they fully expressed themselves they’ll get into trouble with their superiors and as a result their career will suffer. So, people simply avoid conflict and don’t say what is really on their mind. This only perpetuates and fuels the source of the passive aggressive behavior. I see this dynamic at all levels of all companies that I am exposed to.
Pent up emotions, frustrations and unexpressed communications are like bottled energy. Eventually, this energy must be released. The more it stays bottled up, the more likely it is to explode when triggered. This often happens at the most inappropriate times, in the most unproductive ways. When people “lose it,” it usually creates damage beyond proportion.
Other avenues of release for the unexpressed feelings are gossip and background noise. As we all know there is a lot of this going on in most organizations. People say one thing in public and another in the conversations around the cooler. And, again, that dissonance hurts organizational spirit, trust and performance.
So, how do you stop it?
Given that passive aggressive behavior lives in communication, it has to be transformed in communication. This requires leadership, ownership, commitment and courage, first by the leaders and managers.
If leaders are willing to create an open, honest environment for communication where people can fully communicate and express their views, they can stop the passive aggressive behavior. But it has to start with them.
However, if leaders are too afraid to be vulnerable, or they don’t trust themselves to create a more powerful and authentic space 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 continue to hide behind their title and authority in order to avoid hearing bad news or criticism, especially about them selves. By doing that they will perpetuate the issues and drive their team to more passive aggressive behavior.
Individual team members can also transform passive aggressive dynamics with other individuals, independent of their leaders and managers. They too have to behave with courage and commitment. They could show up as genuinely open to feedback, coaching and open, honest, authentic and courageous dialogue by enrolling and engaging others to always interact with them that way.
The more trust people create with others around them, the less passive aggressive behaviors will take place.
A manufacturing plant supervisor I worked with once told me: “I make sure to have lunch with my people every day, because people don’t screw someone they have lunch with.”