Bill rounded the corner on the way to his office and caught a glimpse of the copy machine. A handwritten sign with the words “Fix Me” scrawled in a Sharpie was taped to the front of it. Bill’s emotions surged. He wasn’t sure which thing he was more upset about: that the copier was out of order again or the passive-aggressive behavior from his colleague who put the sign on it.
Bill, a project manager at a large retail organization, had been working with his team on being more straightforward and open in their communication. It was a grassroots effort. As a project manager, he didn’t have a budget or approval to bring in any outside help, but he was bound and determined to turn the tide of the passive-aggressive behavior of the employees on the project he was overseeing.
It hadn’t been easy going. Many of the people on the project didn’t think their behavior was passive-aggressive. So when Bill tried to have an open dialogue with them about communicating differently, without passive-aggressive overtones, they got defensive.
“I’m NOT passive-aggressive,” Gwen had responded. “I just soften the blow when I deliver bad news,” she posited. In more than one team meeting, Gwen made comments directed toward Bill that sounded incredibly passive-aggressive to Bill. “Bill, I was surprised to see that the deadlines for Phase 2 have moved,” she remarked in a meeting the other day. Bill had briefed her on those exact changes several hours before the meeting. Why was she feigning surprise in front of the entire team?
When Bill spoke to her about it later, she replied, “I was sure others had the same question, so I was really speaking on behalf of them. I was doing you a favor.”
Really? It didn’t feel like a favor to Bill. He’d shared the new dates with her in advance, expecting her support in the meeting. This felt like backstabbing.
Bill swung by the copier and removed the sign. He circled over to the other side of the hallway where the administrative assistant sat and he asked her to call the service team. Again. Then he went back to his desk to strategize one more time about how to address the passive-aggressive behavior in his project team.
The next time you are called upon to be direct and open (um, always?), use the following steps to be straightforward and clear, without letting passive-aggressiveness creep in.