Your colleague says one thing in a meeting but then does another. He passes you in the hallway without saying hello and talks over you in meetings. But when you ask to speak with him about it, he insists that everything’s fine and the problem is all in your head. Argh! It’s so frustrating to work with someone who is acting passive-aggressively. Do you address the behavior directly? Or try to ignore it? How can you get to the core issue when your colleague pretends that nothing’s going on?
What the Experts Say
It’s not uncommon for colleagues to occasionally make passive-aggressive remarks to one another over particularly sensitive issues or when they feel they can’t be direct. “We’re all guilty of doing it once in a while,” says Amy Su, coauthor of Own the Room. But persistent passive-aggressive behavior is a different ball game. “These are people who will often do anything to get what they need, including lie,” says Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and coauthor of Primal Leadership. In these cases, you have to take special precautions that help you and, hopefully, your counterpart both get your jobs done. Here are some tips.
Don’t get caught up
When your coworker pretends nothing is going on or accuses you of overreacting, it’s hard not to get angry and defensive. But “this is not one of those situations to fight fire with fire,” McKee says. Do your best to remain calm. “The person may want you to get mad so they can then blame you, which is a release of their own anxiety,” Su explains. “Responding in an emotional way will likely leave you looking — and feeling — like the fool. This is your opportunity to be the bigger person.”
Consider what’s motivating the behavior
People who routinely act in a passive-aggressive way aren’t necessarily complete jerks. It could be that they don’t know how to communicate or are afraid of conflict. McKee says that passive-aggressive behavior is often a way for people to “get their emotional point across without having true, healthy conflict.” There’s also a self-centeredness to it. “They make the flawed assumption that others should know what they’re feeling and that their needs and preferences are more important than others’,” says Su. Understand this, but don’t try to diagnose all your colleague’s problems. “You just have to see it for what it is,” Su adds, “an unproductive expression of emotions that they can’t share constructively.”
Own your part
Chances are that you’re not blameless in the situation. Ask yourself if something you’re doing is contributing to the dynamic or causing the person to be passive-aggressive. “Own your half,” says Su. Also, consider whether you’ve dished out the same behavior; know the signs. “It can happen to even the best of us, whether we’re procrastinating or wanting to avoid something. We might leak emotions in a way that’s hurtful to others,” says Su.
Focus on the content, not the delivery
It might be the last thing you want to do, but try to see the situation from your colleague’s perspective. What is the underlying opinion or perspective she’s attempting to convey with her snarky comment? “Analyze the position the person is trying to share with you,” says McKee. Does she think that the way you’re running the project isn’t working? Or does she disagree about your team goals? “Not everyone likes or knows how to publicly discuss or express what they think,” says Su. If you can focus on the underlying business concern or question rather than the way she’s expressing herself, you can move on to addressing the actual problem.
Acknowledge the underlying issue
Once you’re calm and able to engage in a productive conversation, go back to the person. Say something like: “You made a good point in that exchange we had the other day. Here’s what I heard you saying.” This will help them talk about the substance of their concerns. “By joining with them, you have a better chance of turning the energy around,” McKee explains. Do this in a matter-of-fact way, without discussing how the sentiment was expressed. “Don’t listen or give any edence to the toxic part,” advises Su. “Sometimes it’s that they just want their opinion heard.”
Watch your language
Whatever you say, don’t accuse the person of being passive-aggressive. “That can hurt your cause,” says McKee. Su agrees: “It’s such a loaded word. It would put someone who’s already on the defensive into a more angry position. Don’t label or judge them.” Instead, McKee suggests recounting how some of your previous interactions have played out and explaining the impact it’s having on you and possibly others. If feasible, show that the behavior is working against something your counterpart cares about, like achieving the team’s goals.
Find safety in numbers
You don’t have to deal with this situation alone. “It’s OK to reality-check with others and have allies in place to say you’re not crazy,” says Su. But be sure to frame your discussions as an attempt to constructively improve the relationship, so it doesn’t come across as gossiping or bad-mouthing your colleague. Su suggests you ask something like: “I was wondering how Susan’s comment landed with you. How did you interpret that?”
Set guidelines for everyone
You might also enlist the help of others in coming up with a long-term solution. “As a team, you can build healthy norms,” McKee says. Together you can agree to be more up-front about frustrations and model the honest and direct interactions you want to happen. You can also keep one another accountable. If your problematic colleague tends to ignore agreements, you might take notes in meetings about who’s supposed to do what by when, so there are clear action items. The worst offenders are likely to give in to the positive peer pressure and public accountability.
Get help in extreme situations
When a colleague persistently tries to undermine you or prevent you from doing your job and outside observers confirm your take on the situation, you might have to go further. “If you share the same manager, you may be able to ask for help,” says McKee. You might tell your boss: “A lot of us have noticed a particular behavior, and I want to talk about how it’s impacting my ability to do my work.” But she warns, “Step into those waters carefully. Your manager may be hoodwinked by the person and may not see the same behaviors, or be conflict-averse himself and not want to see it.”
“If there’s an interdependence in your work, make sure you’re meeting your commitments and deadlines,” Su says. “Copy others on important emails. Don’t let that person speak for you or represent you in meetings. After a meeting, document agreements and next steps.” McKee also suggests keeping records: “Track specific behaviors so that you have examples if needed. It’s hard to argue with the facts.” She also recommends you try to avoid working with the person and “keep contact to a minimum. If you have to work together, do it in a group setting” where your colleague is likely to be on better behavior. You might not be able to break the person of his passive-aggressive habits, but you can control your reaction to it.
Principles to Remember
- Understand why people typically act this way — their needs probably aren’t being met
- Focus on the message your colleague is trying to convey, even if her delivery is misguided
- Take a step back and ask yourself if you’re contributing to the issue in some way
- Lose your cool — address the underlying business issue in a calm, matter-of-fact way
- Accuse the person of acting passive-aggressively — that will only make him madder
- Assume you can change your colleague’s behavior
Case Study #1: Make your coworker publicly accountable
One of Mitch Davis’s coworkers (names and details have been changed) in the student guidance office of the public high school where he worked was making things difficult for him. “She would agree to a plan in a meeting but then sabotage it by not following through,” he explains. His colleague, Sarah, defended herself by saying things like “That’s not how I remember it” or “I didn’t think we had finalized the plan.” He tried to talk about these “misunderstandings” with her, but she always shrugged him off. “She’d say she was busy or didn’t have time to talk,” he explained.
When Mitch told Jim, his and Sarah’s boss, that a certain project hadn’t gotten done because of this strange dynamic, Jim said that he had noticed the pattern too. Together, they devised a plan to make Sarah more accountable. “He and I agreed that he would publicly ask for a volunteer to take notes on each meeting, [documenting] who would be responsible for accomplishing each task and by when,” Mitch recalls. He was the first volunteer.
And the approach worked. After Mitch sent around the task list, Sarah couldn’t make excuses. She was accountable to everyone who attended the meetings. And Mitch didn’t mind the additional work: “The extra effort I put in was less than the time I was spending fuming about my coworker and running around to pick up the pieces of the things she didn’t complete. It actually helped everyone in our department be more productive and was something we should have done a long time ago.”
Case Study #2: Get help sooner rather than later
James Armstrong, a digital marketing consultant for Roman Blinds Direct, used to manage an eight-person team at a digital marketing agency. He had gotten the promotion three months after one of his direct reports, Violet, joined the agency, and she clearly wasn’t thrilled to suddenly have him as a new boss. But “she was a top performer and extremely competent,” James recalls, and since they’d worked “fairly harmoniously together as colleagues,” he was happy to have her in the group.
Unfortunately, Violet became very difficult to manage. She didn’t communicate with him unless absolutely necessary; she didn’t actively engage in training sessions that he offered; and she “poked holes” in his initiatives. “She took every opportunity to make it clear that she didn’t value my input,” he explains.
Surprised and dismayed by her attitude, he decided to address it as he would with any other team member: “directly and clearly.” He started by asking her in their one-on-one meetings whether something was wrong. She said there wasn’t, but the behavior persisted, so he tried taking her out to coffee and asking whether he had unknowingly offended her or if she wanted to be managed in a different way. She acknowledged that there was a “personality clash,” but she ended the conversation there and continued to treat him dismissively at the office. He heard from other staff members that she had even called him “lazy and useless.”
“The last thing I wanted was to pass the issue further up the chain, and potentially harm Violet’s career,” he says. After all, she was a valuable team member and he wanted to protect her. But “I should have immediately approached my manager.” When he eventually did, she pointed out that his failure to effectively manage a key team member amounted to poor performance on his part.
Within a year both James and Violet voluntarily left the agency, but neither was happy with the circumstances. He says that if he could do it over again, he would’ve talked to his manager sooner, kept better records on Violet’s “toxic attitude,” and when there weren’t drastic improvements, fired her “without hesitation.”
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