Passive-Aggressive Behavior: Does it Deliver at Work?

Categories: Behavior change, Feedback, Leadership, One on One CoachingAuthor:

Recently, I was coaching someone and suggested that she come up with a list of subtle things she could try to shift the environment in a frustrating situation. Although the things she came up with at first seemed subtle, they were also passive-aggressive, so probably not a good idea. This made me think a bit more about clarifying the difference between being passive-aggressive and being a positive agent of change.

To me, being passive-aggressive means you want something, but you aren’t saying so; it’s dishonest. It’s also about causing harm rather than making improvements. Passive-aggressive behaviors usually deliver subtle forms of punishment or extinction. For example:

• Purposely delaying in a decision
• Not providing all of the necessary information
• Making excuses for not doing things that would be helpful
• Being chronically late in order to cause harm
• Being chronically forgetful in order to cause harm
• Loud sighs during meetings
• Saying, “do whatever you want” when you actually want something specific

Passive-aggressiveness seems to be born out of fear and lack of skill. It’s easier and less scary to be passive-aggressive and makes us feel a tiny bit better in the moment. It’s not the behavior of a real leader, though. Doing the right thing takes courage.

The result of passive-aggressive behavior is that it creates negative feelings and resentment and the underlying issue doesn’t get addressed. It won’t move the relationship or the situation along in a positive direction; it often does the opposite.

The Alternative
When we find ourselves in a scary and frustrating situation, there are other options to move it in a positive direction, including subtle changes to improve the environment. These kinds of techniques should be based on positive reinforcement and feedback strategies. Some examples of more positive change strategies include:

• Asking a question
• Stating the time at the end of a meeting about to run over
• Providing an example of someone doing something really well
• Sitting in a different chair
• Offering a gentle suggestion
• Role-modeling the desired behavior

More subtle forms of feedback call attention to the current environment without having to make direct, scary statements about it. Even something small like sitting in a different seat than you normally would in a meeting can make people notice the current environment more, because something in it changed.

Sometimes more subtle approaches to shifting the environment are not enough, but it’s best to start off with something small and easy that may impact behavior in a gentle way and then slowly move up the continuum of potential responses if the previous ones don’t work. This kind of progression gives you increased confidence to try something more direct and it also gives the other person the opportunity to make a change without feeling like you are being confrontational.

Most importantly, the end goal is to help others and to improve the current environment. The next time you respond to a frustrating situation, ask yourself: will this just make me feel better or could it improve the environment for everyone? If the answer is the former, rethink your strategy.

2 Responses to Passive-Aggressive Behavior: Does it Deliver at Work?

  1. Brandon Clark says:

    This article is very insightful. I really appreciate the “shifting the environment techniques,” as these ideas are simple and easy to apply. I think it is important for leaders to be able to identify passive aggressiveness in others, but equally important not to respond in the same manner. We can do this by setting the example for others to follow, and as mentioned in the article, bringing a positive change to the environment. In the field of ABA, I work with children diagnosed with various disabilities. It is very easy for caregivers, teachers, and coworkers to feel burdened with insurmountable odds, such feelings can present as passive-aggressiveness. Its important to note the small, positive aspects of the changes taking place, and not fall victim to the very behavior you are trying to change. What a great article!


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