By Anne Dranitsaris, PhD
Nothing is more frustrating when you are moving full steam ahead to complete tasks and reach goals than passive-aggressive behavior in a leader or an employee. Although we can understand that these behaviors are often unconscious and emotionally driven, it does not make them any less destructive. One passive-aggressive leader can demotivate a team or department or derail an important project. A passive-aggressive employee can frustrate his or her manager or coworkers by not following through with commitments or diminishing his or her leader by failing to produce the expected work product; not to mention the precious hours and costly resources that can be lost making up for the destruction caused by such behaviors.
Passive-aggressive behavior is one of many behaviors originating from what we refer to as the self-protective system of the brain. This system, consisting of our emotional and instinctual brains, has an agenda to ensure our survival by reacting to perceived threats in an instinctual or emotional fashion–fight, flight, freeze, befriend, and so forth. These behaviors are not learned, but are hard-wired into the fabric of our brain’s physical organization and are only concerned with the preservation of our physical self, self-image, or self-concept.
Although we as humans are able to use reason and to plan our responses, many people are stuck in automatic self-protective patterns of behavior that limit themselves and others.
Passive-aggressive behavior is often the only way a person has to act to feel that he or she has any power or control over what is going on, as control gets shifted to the person who chooses not to act or speak when others need that person to. We call these behaviors passive-aggressive because they are emotionally driven and result in feelings of helplessness, frustration, or anger for those who are thwarted by the behavior. To those who do not use it as a strategy, this behavior does not really make sense, as it does not seem logical. However, doing nothing is a very powerful way of achieving the feeling of having power or of taking it away from someone who has it. And, unfortunately, it is often the person at the receiving end of the passive-aggressive behavior that looks as though he or she has the problem because of his or her emotional reaction to what has or has not happened.
Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Leaders in the Workplace
Although perceived as having power and authority, leaders do not always “feel” in control or know what to do about interpersonal issues that make them anxious or threatened. Instead, they resort to passive-aggressive, self-protective behaviors that can be costly to the organization and to the culture at work.
Here are just a few examples of passive-aggressive strategies that leaders often use when they do not deal with their employees and their emotions head on:
- Not responding to an employee’s requests. Leaders may withhold information or say they are too busy to meet, leaving the employee stranded and unable to achieve his or her timelines. The leader might also criticize the employee for not getting the work done.
- Not giving positive feedback. Withholding praise or positive feedback is a way of controlling how employees feel about themselves. It leaves them unsure about how they are doing in their jobs, and feeling insecure and inadequate.
- Not attending meetings or arriving late. When leaders feel threatened by an employee, they find ways to devalue them. For example, they may decide to not attend a meeting their employee needs them at, causing the employee’s work to be delayed. On the other hand, they might arrive late, forcing everyone to wait for them.
- Sounding like they agree or assent to a request. Responding to an idea an employee has by saying “That sounds like a good idea” or “Your suggestion has a lot of merit” can cause an employee to move to action only to be told later that the leader did not agree to anything. The employee may be berated for doing something without authority.
- Freezing out the employee. Leaders can use the silent treatment and leave an employee out in the cold. Leaders can make the workplace a miserable place when they deny the employee any type of interaction or involvement: ignoring the employee in meetings or not acknowledging him or her when passing in the hall.
Passive-aggressive behaviors are often subtle and certainly deniable as some of them are hard to prove or confront. Leaders who practice these types of tactics need to recognize that they are a destructive force at work and explore the fears or other emotions that are causing their behaviors.
Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Employees
Here are a few examples of passive-aggressive strategies of employees that often occur at work.
Faking compliance: Employees agree to tasks and timelines, then take so long that their manager regrets giving them the task. They frustrate others when they say they are going to help with something, then forget to show up. If confronted, they cast blame elsewhere, insisting there has was a misunderstanding; claim to have forgotten what was said; or say they were given different instructions from a coworker.
Going over the boss’s head: Employees finds ways to get in front of their manager’s boss when their boss is out of the office, by thinking up tasks that need a quick response or approval, or creating a crisis or issue that needs immediate attention. This makes the employee look good in upper management’s eyes while diminishing their manager’s credibility and authority.
Defaming their boss: Employees try to diminish their manager by constantly complaining or commenting on what he or she does wrong. They gossip or spread rumors that put into question their boss’s integrity, behaviour, or even physical appearance. No matter how well a boss treats the employees, they complain about how they are not appreciated.
Sabotaging coworkers: Employees attempt to undermine peers’ work, perhaps giving coworkers wrong information or telling them their boss does not like the way they do their work. They might make mistakes that ultimately make their coworkers look bad or get in the way of them meeting a deadline. They will lose or misplace important files or forget to back up their documents on the computer, losing valuable work and time. When confronted, they might suggest that it was unfair to expect so much of them in the first place and it is not their fault that the project got derailed because someone else used poor judgment.
Sitting on the fence: Knowing there are problems and issues that need to be addressed, employees will comment and discuss them in private to coworkers, but not bring them up at team meetings or to their boss. While they do not make waves, they sit waiting for the problem to get bigger and more disruptive. Once their manager hears of the issue, they might say something like “I didn’t think it was my place to say anything” or “Dealing with this issue is above my pay grade.”
After a lifetime of using passive-aggressive strategies instead of asserting themselves and communicating directly, these individuals’ behavior is difficult to change. If they change, they have to bear feeling powerless, angry, or frightened. However, it is critical that both the leader and the employee who use passive-aggressive strategies be dealt with as they can diminish the performance of their team, coworkers, and managers.
Anne Dranitsaris, PhD, is a behavioral change expert and the author of Who Are You Meant to Be: A Groundbreaking Step-By-Step Approach to Achieving Your True Potential. Her book introduces the Striving Styles Personality System, a neuropsychological approach to assessing and developing potential in individuals and organizations. She has been working with leaders for over 30 years to help them achieve their own potential and that of their people and organization. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.strivingstyles.com