It is highly likely that you’ve had to deal with a passive-aggressive individual in your time. Whether you realised it or not, is another matter, because passive-aggressiveness can be very subtle. Or simply be mistaken for tardiness or even forgetfulness.
Passive-aggressive – let’s recap
Andrea Harn, a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist, wrote an article for Counselling Directory, in which she defines passive-aggressive behaviour as follows:
Passive aggressive behaviour takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behaviour. It is where you are angry with someone but do not or cannot tell them. Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed you may instead bottle the feelings up, shut off verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in behaviour, be obstructive, sulky or put up a stone wall. It may also involve indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue. Not going along with things. It can either be covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious).
Good, honest communication is one of the cornerstones of an efficient and happy office, so by the above definition it is evident that passive-aggressive behaviour is not conducive to a well-functioning office. Should passive-aggressive behaviour thus rear its head in your office or company, it is vital to address it.
Why are people passive-aggressive?
You need to realise that you’re not dealing with a condition that started recently. Passive-aggressive behaviour is ingrained in an individual’s personality. It’s behaviour that stems from their childhood, according to a number of experts.
For example, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, a distinguished clinical professor of leadership development and organizational change. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, he states that a passive-aggressive person typically grew up in a family with “highly controlling parents who didn’t allow their children to express their anger directly”. He continues by saying “pseudo-compliance becomes the child’s way of expressing his or her independence”.
These individuals hold a negative view of authority and brings it with them into the workplace later in life. Any form of authority reminds them of their childhood and leads to them reverting back to their old strategies of challenging authority in hidden ways.
Handle a passive-aggressive individual with care
The passive-aggressive individual won’t tell you when something is bothering them, so you have to be finely attuned to what is not being said. That said, when they do speak up, this individual will discuss their grievances with colleagues that are not directly involved, so keep your ear on the ground to pick up on issues.
When an individual has been identified as passive-aggressive, there are a few strategies you can employ to rehabilitate them, so to speak.
First, you can make face-to-face communication the norm, as opposed to electronic communication. This will build a good relationship between yourself and the passive-aggressive person, which might make them more likely to approach you when something is upsetting them.
You can also just ask what’s bothering the person. Do not be confrontational, however. Instead of asking “Why are you so angry?”, ask “It seems that you are unhappy. Let’s chat about it”. Be sure to create an open and honest environment, where people feel free to discuss their feelings, or this strategy won’t be as successful.
You’ll find that passive-aggressive individuals procrastinate and always find excuses for why work is not done, so the third strategy is to clear expectations regarding timelines, the quality of work and responsibilities. This will leave no room for excuses.
Finally, explain the differences between passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive to this individual. There is a chance that the passive-aggressive individual, due to the environment they grew up in, consider assertive and aggressive to be the same. If further education is necessary, enroll the individual for communication training courses that will teach them the fundamentals of effective communication. It is not only the individual that will benefit – the entire office will be a better place for it.