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How to Stop Being So Passive-Aggressive

If you're upset, disappointed, or disagree with an employee's idea, speak up. A disconnect between what you say and the actions you take will make it hard for your staff to trust you.
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Everyone has that passive-aggressive family member--the one who praises you in public, but talks bad behind your back to your siblings. Or the friend who gets upset at you but won't say why. The fellow executive who likes things a particular way but always says "however you like it is fine."

When it comes to leadership, passive-aggressive behavior is detrimental to your trustworthiness. Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-founder of executive coaching and leadership development firm Isis Associates, says it is important to weed out all actions that may be construed as passive-aggressive. Your employees need to know where they stand with you, and to know that you mean it when you say an idea is great. You're leading the troops, so be clear with your emotions, directions, and opinions about things.

"Over time, passive-aggressive behavior is a slippery slope that breeds mistrust and chips away at your credibility. Being known as passive-aggressive will not serve you well in your career," Wilkins writes in Harvard Business Review.

If you are having trouble getting rid of your passive-aggressive tendencies, Wilkins says to root out "the incongruity between your internal dialogue--what you think--and your external actions--what others see and hear." Below, find out how to make the appropriate changes to your behavior. 

Spot the behavior

Wilkins says that you should be on the lookout for circumstances or situations that drive you to be passive aggressive. "Knowing what they are helps you consciously explore other ways to respond," she writes in HBR. "Start by thinking about the circumstances that bring out these behaviors: Who was involved? How did the situation unfold? How did you react? What happened? Do you see a pattern?"

Pinpoint the cause

There is some underlying cause to your behavior, such as fear of rejection, fear of failure, or a fear of conflict. "It's critical to understand the root of the issue so that you can address it head-on and determine whether your fear is warranted," Wilkins writes. Your fears are usually not well-founded, so make sure you take a deep dive and be honest with yourself.

Once you understand the cause, you need to think about what you really want. "Continuing to veil or deny your feelings will only perpetuate the passive-aggressive response," she writes. "What is it that you truly think? What is it that you really want to say? What outcome are you hoping for? Then think about how to express that desire in a direct, but respectful, way."

Get comfortable with conflict

There's no way around this one--you need to embrace the fact that conflict happens. "Conflict at work (or anywhere) is not necessarily a bad thing if you make an effort to move through it productively," Wilkins writes. "Seek mutual understanding (not to be mistaken with mutual agreement) of each other's positions and recognize that even if you don't agree with someone, it typically does not mean that the relationship is in jeopardy." Conflict has the potential to benefit your company, while withholding critical feedback can mean a misunderstanding will fester or subpar work will be produced.

Get feedback

Changing your behavior is hard, so you're going to need support. Tell your executive team what you're trying to do and get feedback from them every week. Wilkins writes that one of her clients had a colleague kick him under the table during meetings when he was acting in a passive-aggressive manner. Have your team hold you accountable while you show them you're changing.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Jun 24, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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