How to lead a passive-aggressive employee

How do you encourage good performance and dissuade bad? Are leaders going through the motions but not embracing the heart of the mission? Are you being misled?

Hi, I’m Peter Nichol, Data Science CIO.

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Today we’re going to talk about managing behaviors on your team—specifically, passive-aggressive behavior. Rarely do we, as leaders, have challenges we can’t see or face. If the market is shifting, we can feel small tremors and position our organization ahead of the next rumble. If any individual doesn’t please a key stakeholder, we can offer suggestions to mend that social divide. The challenge with managing passive-aggressive behavior is that it’s primarily intangible. You can’t find it. It’s hard to wrestle. It isn’t easy to nail down the source.

Whether you’ve been around for 30 years or you’re new to the leadership or BRM scene, passive-aggressive behaviors are something we all can brush up on.

Passive-aggressive behavior: the definition

What is passive-aggressive behavior? Passive-aggressive behavior is behavior that’s essentially aggressive behind the scenes. Passive-aggressive behaviors are indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive. Individuals that display passive-aggressive behavior obey authority in its presence but are positioned to turn their backs at the first chance.

It wasn’t until 1952, in the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), that passive-aggressive behavior was explained in detail. The term was coined by an Army psychiatrist named William Menninger. Following the Second World War, Menninger published a document called Medical 203. This was a major overhaul of the existing US classification of mental disorders, and it was within this document that Menninger spelled out passive-aggressive behavior. It originated from a disturbing pattern among soldiers. These soldiers technically obeyed orders but executed them with subtle disobedience. For example, in some cases, they’d execute the orders to the letter but ignore the spirit of the command entirely.

There’s a good quote that sums up passive-aggressive individuals nicely: “Some people are like clouds—when they’re gone, it’s like a beautiful day!”

Why is diagnosis hard?

The greatest challenge is quiet aggression. Many times, you feel something, but you can’t specify what’s actually occurring that disrupts achieving results.

Complex actions

Often, the actions of passive-aggressive individuals are complicated. Their actions might even appear confusing, as they’re mixed with stress, anxiety, or insecurity in the individual.

Mask behavior

Another reason these behaviors go undetected is that they’re hidden from view. These individuals’ behavior is a way to veil their discontent, hostility, or anger. Because they mask their true feelings, detecting and interpreting the emotions of these individuals can prove challenging for leaders. If you’re not familiar with identifying micro-expressions, you’ll enjoy my article titled, Micro Expressions: The Art of a Lie. This article helps you to determine what to look for in mixed-emotion responses.

Quiet Disobedience

A passive-aggressive individual isn’t going to say they disagree with your strategy. They’ll do the very opposite. Their genuine emotions are suppressed. However, they’ll disagree with you offline by sharing their opinion powerfully with other team members, creating a manufactured situation where you, as a leader, can’t defend and justify your rationale for the given course of action.

Denial

People who engage in passive-aggressive behavior won’t admit anything’s wrong. Have you ever wrapped up a discussion and said, “Does anyone have concerns or questions about what we covered?” Passive-aggressive individuals usually won’t speak up against your strategy. However, once that meeting has wrapped, they’ll relive that discussion and talk to others about how your system doesn’t make sense and why the approaches won’t work. You might think, “I want people to challenge the direction.” That’s a good gut feeling to have. However, in this case, you can’t explain any of those decisions because the individual or individuals are exhibiting this passive-aggressive behavior in the organizational shadows.

Resistance to change

Typically, these folks don’t like any change that might pivot them from being an expert. Often these individuals will blanketly disagree with change—any change—presented to them. This resistance is rooted in an inability to communicate effectively.

How do you spot passive-aggressive behavior in action?

Passive-aggressive behavior slowly erodes team unity and cohesion. These are actions and behaviors that take place quietly when most leaders are unaware. To mitigate or stop passive-aggressive behavior, we first need to be able to identify it.

Exclusion from emails

The act of being left off an email seems innocent enough. On occasion, it’s a simple oversight in judgment that’s never repeated. However, it’s also a prevalent example of someone being passive-aggressive. There was a critical communication that a member of your team sent out, and it wasn’t sent to you. Maybe it’s just an omission. Be a good leader and assume good intent. However, if this happens two or three times, it’s not a simple lapse in judgment. It’s deliberate.

Pushing back on reasonable change

Let’s get real. Almost no one loves to change. So, when you’re getting resistance to change, that makes sense. For example, a new executive was hired to mature departmental processes, and the individual doesn’t feel documentation adds value. This is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior.

Here are some additional signs to look for that may appear to be omissions but, when they occur together, are more likely deliberate:

  1. Intentional procrastination: pushing off tasks because of other “priority” work that’s never initially identified
  2. Disruptive behavior: voicing their opinion at the wrong time
  3. Blaming others: never accepting their communication could be the source of the issue
  4. Gossiping behind colleagues’ backs: oversharing information
  5. Pushing the demands of others: not communicating to them but rather on behalf of others
  6. Intentional mistakes: scheduling a critical stakeholder meeting before your team meeting
  7. Hostile attitude: isolating from other people because of impatience or stubbornness
  8. Disguising criticism with compliments: offering negative opinions wrapped in positivity
  9. Silent treatment: building a culture of disengagement
  10. Sullen attitude: always finding fault in others for delays
  11. Stubborn: lack of interest in change
  12. Leaving things undone: not finishing assignments before taking a vacation (even if one day)
  13. The indirect request: executing the letter but not the intent of a direction or assignment
  14. Sabotage: rarely overt and often designed to make someone go crazy

The good news is that, over time, passive-aggressive behavior makes its way into the light. I enjoy the following quote from Haruki Murakami: “Sometimes, it’s not the people who change, it’s the mask that falls off.” Eventually, all truth is told.

The delay in recognizing passive-aggressive behavior is what makes it challenging to address. Usually, there are soft signs such as childlike behavior designed to keep you, as a leader, submerged.

How do we get ahead of this behavior?

There are three basic approaches for dealing with passive-aggressive behavior:

  1. Establish team norms
  2. Set standard team principles
  3. Define the standard for good

First, establish team norms that set the behavior guidelines for your team. If you need to, brush up on my article, Why team norms transform team dynamics. It provides a great start. Team norms help the team define what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t. A few good examples of team norms include:

  • Avoid hidden agendas
  • Listen to understand
  • Provide assurance that issues discussed will be kept in confidence
  • Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt
  • Respect the time and convenience of others

By defining good behaviors, you help to identify unwelcome behaviors. In essence, you’ve clarified how a high-performing team should be operating.

Second, set standard team principles. These principles establish the guiding framework for the team or department. Sometimes, these principles are defined by the organization or company; other times, you need to generate them. Good examples of team principles might include a few of the following:

  • An excellent approach to conflict management
  • Effective allocation of resources
  • Stepping in to help before asked
  • Mutual respect for team members
  • Identifying what unites us

Third, define the standard for good. How do team members know how to perform if performance standards haven’t been established? Short version: they don’t. There are a lot of ways to tackle defining “good.” Here are a few ideas:

  • Define roles and responsibilities for the team
  • Use a rubric based on job function
  • Develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the team
  • Establish objective and critical results incorporated into annual performance

How you define the standard isn’t crucial, but making it clear is vital. Team members must know what behavior and associative performance are encouraged and what performance isn’t. If you have an individual who’s not performing, it’s essential to have a standard to measure their actions, behaviors, and outcomes against.

Taking corrective action

What happens if you find yourself in the position of dealing with a passive-aggressive team member?

You might feel the team is starting to gel. Yet, there are undertones indicating that people disagree with the strategy. However, when you inquire individually, you can’t tell where all the noise originated. The excellent news is that usually this intangible noise is being driven by one or two people creating and reinforcing the negative culture. Make no mistake—they’re sabotaging your strategy and how you’re executing that strategy. Where do you start in taking corrective action?

There’s a three-step process that’s failproof:

  1. Clarify the performance standard
  2. Identify the behavior gaps
  3. Explore corrective action

First, you need to sit down with that individual and have a conversation. Discuss what you expect and what good performance looks like. Second, you need to identify behaviors that don’t align with the team norms, principles, (maybe) competencies, or the standard for good. It needs to be made clear which team norm they violated and what behavior was unacceptable. Third, if, at this point, you’ve not seen significant performance gains, or you’ve been made aware of another occurrence of this behavior, it’s time for corrective action. This means the behavior needs to be formally documented. It doesn’t matter if this is shared with the individual or not. However, the documentation must exist in case this situation continues to surface.

It’s challenging to identify the emergence of negative team aspects when they’re not directly presented to you. For example, if somebody doesn’t attend a meeting on time, the performance gap is apparent. If a team member shows up at 10 am—two hours late for work—that’s obviously a performance gap. When a deliverable is delivered two days late, we can immediately explain the performance expected and what was achieved. In each of these examples, it’s obvious what happened. How to correct that behavior is also straightforward.

With leadership, situations are rarely just black and white. What do you do when the team just isn’t working well together? Where do you look when your approach isn’t realizing its goals? Passive-aggressive behavior is subtle. Acts of sabotage or quietly challenging authority don’t occur in the daylight.

Hopefully, this article provides some practical tips on how to get ahead of managing passive-aggressive employees. Here are a few templates to help document your conversation with team members exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior.

If you found this article helpful, that’s great! Check out my books, Think Lead Disrupt and Leading with Value. They were published in early 2021 and are available on Amazon and at http://www.datsciencecio.com/shop for author-signed copies!

Hi, I’m Peter Nichol, Data Science CIO. Have a great day!

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Peter is a technology executive with 19 years of experience, dedicated to driving innovation, digital transformation, leadership, and data in business. He helps organizations connect strategy to execution to maximize company performance. He has been recognized for Digital Innovation by CIO 100, MIT Sloan, Computerworld, and the Project Management Institute. As Managing Director at OROCA Innovations, Peter leads the CXO advisory services practice, driving digital strategies. Peter was honored as an MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award Finalist in 2015 and is a regular contributor to CIO.com on innovation. Peter has led businesses through complex changes, including the adoption of data-first approaches for portfolio management, lean six sigma for operational excellence, departmental transformations, process improvements, maximizing team performance, designing new IT operating models, digitizing platforms, leading large-scale mission-critical technology deployments, product management, agile methodologies, and building high-performance teams. As Chief Information Officer, Peter was responsible for Connecticut’s Health Insurance Exchange’s (HIX) industry-leading digital platform transforming consumerism and retail oriented services for the health insurance industry. Peter championed the Connecticut marketplace digital implementation with a transformational cloud-based SaaS platform and mobile application recognized as a 2014 PMI Project of the Year Award finalist, CIO 100, and awards for best digital services, API, and platform. He also received a lifetime achievement award for leadership and digital transformation, honored as a 2016 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader. Peter is the author of Learning Intelligence: Expand Thinking. Absorb Alternative. Unlock Possibilities (2017), which Marshall Goldsmith, author of the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Triggers, calls "a must-read for any leader wanting to compete in the innovation-powered landscape of today." Peter also authored The Power of Blockchain for Healthcare: How Blockchain Will Ignite The Future of Healthcare (2017), the first book to explore the vast opportunities for blockchain to transform the patient experience. Peter has a B.S. in C.I.S from Bentley University and an MBA from Quinnipiac University, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. He earned his PMP® in 2001 and is a certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Masters in Business Relationship Management (MBRM) and Certified Scrum Master. As a Commercial Rated Aviation Pilot and Master Scuba Diver, Peter understands first hand, how to anticipate change and lead boldly.