Transforming Talk at Work | February 2016



Dear Reader,

I really got under a reader’s skin last month when I wrote about passive aggressive behavior. Specifically, this reader, we’ll call her Kate, was upset that saying yes when she means no is considered passive-aggressive behavior. Kate says she often “takes one for the team” and goes along with something she disagrees with. “We have so much on our plates, we’d never get anything done if I spoke up about the things I disagree with in meetings,” Kate told me.

Kate went on to explain that chats in the ladies room, the break area and the parking lot are where she exerts her influence and “gets things done.” By building coalitions outside of the sanction channels (meetings, conversations with the manager, etc.), Kate thinks she is positively affecting change.

This back-channel behavior is passive-aggressiveness at its worst. It pollutes the office environment and poisons the culture.

Classic passive-aggressive behavior is sneaky and covert, just like Kate was behaving. And Kate, like other masters of passive-aggression, got defensive and resistant when confronted with her own behavior. Passive-aggressive people will excessively pass the buck, make excuses or try to pin it on someone else when challenged to justify their behavior.

That’s when it’s a good time to discuss the implications of their behavior – and hold your ground. If you’re talking with someone who came to you with concerns AFTER the meeting, ask them to explain why: “Help me understand why you didn’t share your concern during the meeting.”

And stick with it until you get an answer. Then explain what they need to do differently next time and what you’ll do if they do (or don’t). “I commit to making sure you have a voice in the meeting and are not interrupted. If you don’t speak up, we will not revisit the issue after the meeting like we have done in the past.” And then hold yourself (and them) accountable.

The next time your colleagues (or clients or family members) are showing their passive-aggressive side, use the following steps to encourage direct, straightforward communication.


Reverse Engineer: Address Passive-Aggressive Behavior

1. Spot the behavior. Whether it is sarcasm, physically withdrawing from a tough conversation, or gossiping, identify the behavior every time you spot it. You don’t have to call it passive-aggressive – that might throw fuel on the flame. Just calmly ask about the behavior.

2. Trust your gut reaction. You might be tempted to rationalize someone’s behavior or convince yourself you are being overly sensitive. Most likely you’re not. Learn to trust your gut. If it feels like a jab, it’s a jab.

3. Manage your emotions. It’s easy to jab back when you feel a jab. But that will only make matters worse. Keep your cool and stay on point. Be responsible for your response to their behavior.

4. Address the situation head on. It’s okay to say “I get the feeling some of you are angry with this new direction,” or “People are rolling their eyes. What’s going on?” In fact, you will be respected for addressing the elephant in the room.

5. Explain what needs to change. Whether it is a reduction in eye rolling, canceling the “meeting-after-the-meeting” or curtailing the sarcasm, clearly articulate what needs to change.


Digest This: Putting a Stop to Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Others

Reduce Passive-Aggressive Behavior on Your Team (Harvard Business Review)
Author Liane Davey talks about the conflict problem she sees most often in teams: They don’t have enough conflict. Rather than expressing their disagreement, frustration or alternate viewpoints, they resort to passive-aggressive behavior. The cost of passive-aggressiveness is high and Davey keys in on ways to stop the behaviors – before they cause lasting damage in your culture.

6 Tips for Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People (Psychology Today )
Use humor? Set consequences? Step out of the circumstances that trigger passive-aggressive behavior? These ideas (and more) are described as methods for rooting out passive-aggressive behavior in your personal life. And they work at the office, too. As the author notes, not all techniques will apply to your situation. Take what works and leave the rest.

5 Ways to Root Out Passive Aggression at Work (Inc.)
Passive aggression, or “a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden or covert feelings of anger,” refers to a wide range of behavior that is meant to attack, without seeming like an attack, according to Signe Whitson who researches the behavior. This article provides a handful of tactics that are useful when dealing with those who are acting out – while thinking they are not acting out.


My Treat

Straight Talk Served Straight Up

In a recent interview with Business Innovators Magazine, I dish on how to start difficult conversations, how to manage your defensiveness when a difficult conversation finds you and when to call time out in a high stakes conversation.


What do you want to hear about next month? Take this two question survey and tell me what you want, what you really, really want.

Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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