Fending Off My Passive-Aggressive Ways at Work

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From my experience talking to employees at work, everyone appreciates directness, or at least the idea of it. People generally like it when they’re given direct and relevant feedback, even if it causes a bit of discomfort. They’d rather know than not know. People also think that they themselves are direct in their communications. Very few people ever admit to being passive aggressive, and certainly nobody comes to work thinking they’re going to be passive aggressive to their co-workers. Some people talk about being tactful and being sensitive to how certain things are brought up, but they will also say that they are, for the most part, direct with their team members.

Passive-aggressive behavior, in the workplace context, can be described as indirect acts or expressions of resentment or hostility that undermine productivity. A common example is that of a person who may be completely agreeable in conversation with a team member or supervisor only to turn around and talk shit about the other person. This spreads negativity in the workplace and weakens trust among team members. Another example of passive-aggressive behavior manifests when a person is angry or upset. This person might exhibit body language, facial expressions, and even disinterest in the work, but when asked if anything is the matter, he will say that everything is just fine.

There are dozens of ways that passive-aggressive behavior creeps up in our daily interactions. And while some actions may be deliberate, I believe that a good number of behaviors are totally subconscious. Like I mentioned earlier, nobody comes to work thinking they’re going to be passive aggressive.

The thing about passive-aggressive behavior is that I think we’ve all become really good at picking up on it and observing it in other people. Communication that feels indirect or secretive can easily be labeled by observers as passive-aggressive behavior. But when it comes to evaluating ourselves and our own passive-aggressive behavior, things don’t seem as clear cut.

I’ve thought about this for a while now because I know that I’ve exhibited some very passive-aggressive behavior in the past at work (and in my personal life, too, but that’s another story). The list runs long in retrospect, but I was unaware when these behaviors were happening. In fact, the dynamics of the workplace, including the employer/employee relationship and HR policies on what can and can’t be said, often foment passive-aggressive behavior (see this article for more). Think about office politics and how much is fueled by passive-aggressive behavior.

It’s a hard thing to do, but reflecting on my own passive-aggressive behavior reveals a lot of subconscious activity that I can try to avoid the next time around. Some examples of my previous transgressions:

  • Rather than give direct feedback, I have opted in the past to minimize our exposure to an underperforming employee by staffing that person on less important projects, or worse, not staffing them on projects at all.
  • I’ve complained in private to others about an employee’s lack of skill in certain areas without ever bringing it up to the person.
  • I’ve concealed my disappointment about someone’s performance while scrambling to get help from others without that person knowing.

If you asked me whether or not I am a direct communicator, I might answer, “When it feels easy, sure.” The truth is, I find it hard to consistently say what’s on my mind in a direct manner to those who’ll be directly impacted. Fear is a big component–fear of confrontation, fear that the person will dislike me, and fear that what I say might come off wrong and lead to conflict. What I should really fear is the missed opportunity to communicate clearly and to help facilitate a productive interaction.

I have a few ideas to help me fend off passive-aggressive behavior. They are much easier said than done, but good to keep in mind at work:

  • Give timely and direct feedback, even if it causes discomfort. Make sure the tone of the feedback matches the message I’m trying to get across. If it’s serious, make sure this comes through.
  • Stop talking shit behind people’s backs, even when I’m frustrated. Shit-talking creates a negative feeling that can affect outward actions in subconscious ways. Instead, try my hardest to understand the actions and behaviors of the person frustrating me–what might be going through that person’s mind, and how could we try to gain alignment?
  • Focus on people’s strengths and their upside rather than their weaknesses. It’s easier to see win-win solutions when you emphasize what’s possible rather than what someone can’t do.

Working with other people, no matter how pleasant and talented they are, is never a cakewalk. Mindless actions and bad habits can quickly snowball into miscommunication and distrust, even if things seem friendly and fine on the surface. I hope to continue raising my own awareness about my passive-aggressive behavior and try my best to model behavior that feels consistent, direct, and encouraging.

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