Reduce Passive-Aggressive Behavior on Your Team

The majority of teams I work with have a conflict problem: They have too little conflict. They seldom express dissent, diversity of opinion, or frustration. Instead, they act passive-aggressively toward one another, leaving themselves in a quagmire of unresolved issues. As a team leader, you need to foster productive conflict to limit the damage done by this behavior.

Passive-aggressiveness is simply the indirect expression of hostility. It can take the form of a pervasive negative attitude, such as resentment or sullenness. It can also manifest in resistance — both covert (procrastination or stubbornness) and overt (sarcasm or gossip). This behavior often has its roots in early experiences. Children raised in situations where it is unsafe to address conflict learn to stifle their dissent. In the workplace, those who have experienced negative consequences as a result of disagreeing, such as being ostracized, disciplined, or even terminated, may similarly learn not to express conflict directly.

The cost of passive-aggressiveness is high. At the business level, the negative effects include slow decision making, poor risk identification and mitigation, and stalled execution. On the team level, unarticulated but apparent frustrations erode trust, interfere with communication, and contribute to animosity. For individuals, the prolonged stress of unaddressed conflict takes a toll. Everyone suffers.

As a team leader, your role is to foster productive conflict by surfacing issues that would otherwise go underground. But having too little conflict can often be attributed to conflict-avoidant team leaders. Reflect on your own mindset about conflict. If you realize you are conflict avoidant, you will need to shift your own mindset before implementing the tactics below. Think about what contributed to your biases about conflict and which outdated notions can be discarded. Then focus on the benefits of addressing conflict more directly, such as increased innovation, faster execution, less gossip and drama, fewer meetings, and better risk mitigation.

Team members resort to passive-aggressive behavior when they perceive the discomfort of addressing an issue directly to be greater than the discomfort of addressing it indirectly — or not addressing it at all. You can increase the likelihood of productive conflict by making team members feel more comfortable with openly disagreeing and less comfortable with stifling differences.

First, hold a special session to discuss the dynamic you want to establish. Be explicit about the need for conflict, and work with the team to set your conflict ground rules. You can say, “I’m concerned that we aren’t using our meetings effectively to air all of our opinions” or “I want everyone to add value before decisions are made, not after.” Don’t be afraid to be direct about counterproductive behavior. For example: “Often, two or three people come to my office after each meeting to discuss something that I expected to be raised in the meeting.”

When a contentious issue comes up in ongoing interactions, remind the team of your expectations: “This is a sensitive discussion and it’s one we need to have out in the open” or “I would ask everyone to weigh in on this” or “How are we going to approach this discussion productively?”

Next, make room for dissent. Before bringing any discussion to a close, ask, “What haven’t we talked about?” or “How might someone criticize this idea?” Similarly, before making a decision, ask, “Are we ready to make this decision?” or “What could we consider that would improve the quality of this decision?” or “What might cause us to re-open this decision after we make it?” You want people to feel like they are contributing positively by raising a conflicting perspective.

When someone does introduce a different point of view, spend time discussing it. You might say, “That is a really different way of looking at this issue — what can we gain from that perspective?” or “If we assume Mary’s point is true, what would be the implications?” If you suspect that the dissenting opinion might be unpopular, lend it credence (without necessarily agreeing with it) by saying something such as “That’s not how I was thinking about it. Can you explain your reasoning?”

These techniques will make team members feel more comfortable raising their concerns directly. The other half of the equation is to make suppressing conflict feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Make sure you identify passive-aggressive behavior every time you see it. For example, when body language is negative, ask, “I’ve noticed that you’ve pushed away from the table. How are you reacting to this discussion?” or “I just saw three people roll their eyes. What’s going on?”

Commonly, passive-aggressive behavior is expressed with sarcasm. Don’t allow humor to shut things down. Say, “We’ve enjoyed a laugh, now let’s get back to Bob’s point” or “I get the sense we’re using humor to avoid a serious discussion. What’s making this conversation difficult?”
Finally, you need to shut down all back channels. Those meetings after the meeting need to stop. When a team member comes to complain outside the meeting, redirect them: “I’m concerned that I didn’t hear this point of view in the meeting. What are you hoping to accomplish by raising it now?” or “Tell me about your decision not to raise this in the team meeting.”

When someone tries to reopen a decision, ask, “What new information do we have that would lead us to address this again?” Be clear that it would have to go back to the team to be reversed. And be firm: “We already knew that when we made the decision.”

By calmly and directly highlighting each instance of passive-aggressive behavior, you will make resisting covertly feel more uncomfortable. Over time, your team members will be able to say what’s on their minds more easily.

Passive-aggressive behavior costs us dearly. We lose productivity, and our teams suffer from frustration, stress, and anxiety. It may be hard to believe, but the path to increased productivity and decreased stress is more conflict, not less. As a team leader, it’s your job to foster that open, direct, and productive conflict.

Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.

Source: Reduce Passive-Aggressive Behavior on Your Team

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