Transforming Talk at Work | January 2016



Dear Janel,

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.


Reverse Engineer: Eliminate Passive-Aggressive Behavior

1. Stop saying yes when you mean no. Agreeing when you, in fact, disagree because you want to be a team player isn’t noble. Stop it.

2. Eliminate the word “Actually.” When you use the word “actually,” you are evading taking the issue head on. Consider this example: “This is actually a design the client might like.” Translation: “I didn’t think you were capable of producing a design they would like and I am pleasantly surprised.”

3. Don’t say “I thought you understood . . .” As in “I thought you understood the deadlines were flexible” when you learn that your co-worker stayed up to the wee hours of the night working to meet a fictional deadline. It’s demeaning and disparaging. Instead, explain the deadlines matter-of-factly. And apologize.

4. Don’t “soften the message” with feigned surprise or confusion. The other person can see through it. This tactic is a roundabout way of being critical. If you disagree, share your disagreement straight up.


Digest This: Spotting Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Others – And Yourself

Signs You’re Being Passive-Aggressive (Harvard Business Review)
“Passive-aggressive behavior is a slippery slope that breeds mistrust and chips away at your credibility,” notes Author Muirel Maignan Wilkins. She acknowledges how easy it is to recognize passive-aggressive behavior in others . . . and how difficult it is to identify the same behavior in ourselves. Whether intentional or not, Wilkins will help you spot it if you’ve got it. And she’ll give you some strategies to address it.

How to Stop Being So Passive-Aggressive (Inc.)
Speak up when you disagree or are upset with others at work. Saying one thing and then doing another, like agreeing in the meeting and then voicing your disagreement outside the meeting, creates an obvious mis-match in the minds of others. Trust is on the line when your actions and your words do not match. The author shares four changes you can make to stop being passive-aggressive.

7 Things Passive-Aggressive Employees Do (Forbes)
This article surveys some of the most common passive-aggressive tactics and behaviors. These thinly veiled sabotage efforts may be impacting you more than you know. Do you see any of your colleagues behaviors listed here? Or anything you see yourself doing – that of course you will put an immediate end to?


My Treat: A Passive Aggressive Christmas

Although the Christmas is officially past, this song may bring back fond memories of the season as you put the final decorations away.


Next month, we’ll continue the discussion on passive-aggressive behavior and I will share strategies to effectively deal with colleagues who are passive-aggressive toward you.

Until next time,

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

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