How passive aggression kills team performance and what to do about it

We’ve met many people and worked with many teams and there is one particular behaviour that, when left unchallenged, seriously damages business productivity and growth. Passive aggression. This behaviour at best creates stale working environments, however, team frustration can also quickly escalate, resulting in high conflict and aggressive responses. Ultimately, the highest prices paid are in missed opportunities because team focus isn’t on the customer.

If you find yourself wondering  ‘Where did that come from?’ in response to a colleague, passive aggression is probably in the mix.

So what does it look like at work? Our observations include the following:

  • Sulking and silence when a decision is unpopular without any suggestions about how to make a positive change
  • Failure to action or adopt new practices or processes that have previously been agreed
  • Avoidance of direct dialogue where there’s a conflicting point of view
  • Over commitment to tasks or projects which later becomes used to justify and excuse poor results or behaviour
  • Disruptive or unhelpful dialogues with people who have no remit or influence over the situation
  • Sarcasm and use of ‘slights’ in group situations and meetings that create awkward silences and disrupt meeting discussions
  • Negative demeanour when taking part in group/social activity, they’ll turn up, but everyone will know they’re not happy
  • Avoidance or vague responses to constructive questions or challenges
  • Unilateral and overly controlling decision making which deny other team members the opportunity to contribute to team results
  • Emotional outbursts when challenged or questioned about their contribution or behaviour
  • Reluctance to share information with colleagues

Right now, who relies on some of these behaviours in your team?

More importantly, how can this be tackled constructively?

  1. First of all, get some perspective. Detach if you need to and work out what the real agenda is. Is it fear of feeling dispensable? Is there avoidance because times are changing? Get to the heart of the problem and you’ll be in a stronger position to keep your own emotions in check when it’s time to have a conversation.
  2. Passive aggressive behaviour is used because someone believes it will get them the result they need. It puts them in the driving seat and creates a sense of control in a situation where they would otherwise feel powerless. So be kind, firm and clear without being forceful.
  3. Think about what you want to achieve from your conversation, even if it’s only for a few minutes beforehand. You’ll need to do something differently this time if you’re to make any headway and avoid a repetitive cycle.
  4. Tackle one or two points that relate to something you can change. Early wins create momentum for future wins.
  5. If you get an emotional outburst when you’ve challenged. Take a few minutes out for the emotions to calm, but make sure you re-convene. The message needs to be clear that the situation isn’t going away and it’s all adults at work.
  6. Don’t judge. You may be the first person that has discussed this with them, ever. So keep your opinions about how they’re behaving in check, whilst remaining firm on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour for your team.
  7. Provide clear, factual examples. This way, your conscience will be clear even if the conversation doesn’t go as well as you planned.
  8. Above all, have a balanced conversation. Listen, ask questions. Encourage the other person to make suggestions for how you could move forward more productively.
  9. Make notes of key points and summarise periodically to check you are both on the same page.  It’s not about what you each said, it’s about what you both understood from the conversation that will determine it’s success.
  10. Follow up. Regularly. Don’t let the avoidance cycle return. Take responsibility to stick to what you said you would do.
  11. Don’t avoid having the conversation, delegate it to someone else or, worse, use other people’s opinions in the discussion. This is your conversation, you want to see a change. Own it!
  12. Be specific about what you want to see following the conversation and don’t create a list that’s too long. It’ll just demoralise you both.

We help small and large organisations to address challenging behaviours just like these with individuals and teams at all levels.  If you could use a confidential, impartial discussion, we’d love to discuss how we might be able to help. You can find out more about what we do and our approach by visiting our website at HR Services and Leadership Development pages.

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