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Sunday, October 4, 2009


There are a certain number of people we deal with, whether in our personal or professional lives, who deal with most situations in a passive-aggressive way. There is another segment of the population who occasionally deal with problems in a passive-aggressive way.

What do I mean by this behavior? It's passive resistance or covert obstructionism. It's behavior that consciously on unconsciously fights demands for adequate performance in work or social situations. It can be caused by people feeling they're being judged or by generally fighting authority. It's just not overt, either because the person doesn't feel he or she is free to express feelings or because the person is uncomfortable with confrontation. It can definitely get in the way of progress.

Some examples are:
  1. Procrastination
  2. Stubbornness
  3. Sullenness
  4. Inefficiency
We can't escape it. It's present in our teammates, in our employees, in our bosses, and in our families. So, what do we do?
  1. First, we respectfully address it with the other individuals. How direct we are depends on the person and our relationship with them (this is tricky with bosses and may never work or even be worth trying to fix when we have no leverage). It's critical that we focus on the behavior, not the self-worth of the individual. It's not the person we are having difficulty with, it's the behavior.
  2. We share our perceptions and solicit theirs. We try to understand their viewpoint and hopefully get them to see ours. We have to be willing to suspend our beliefs during the perception-gathering phase.
  3. We should think about our potential role in the behavior. Are we being so heavy-handed in the relationship that the only way the person believes he or she can deal with us is to respond in a passive-aggressive way?
  4. Once we have shared our thoughts, if the other person agrees that the behavior exists, we should be willing to help them as they try to fight it, perhaps by reminding them when it is occurring. If the person is a direct report at work, we can revisit the behavior as we periodically meet for our 1:1 sessions. We can also support them if they seek professional help to overcome the behavior.
  5. If the person cannot see the behavior (and we still believe it exists) or acknowledges it, but is unwilling to make any behavior modifications, then we either need to learn to live with the behavior (only in personal, boss, or peer situations) or take steps to remove the person from our team or from our interactions.
  6. The one thing I don't think we can afford to do, especially in a work environment, is overlook the behavior.

Passive-aggressive behavior is totally unproductive. It's our responsibility to wisely work to address the behavior so it will not impede our responsibilities.

How do you deal with passive-aggressive behavior? It is as big a problem as I appear to see it?

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