As a strategic coach, I spend a lot of time working with leadership teams on strategy and accountability. My job is to help a team develop and agree to a set of priorities and actions, and then to drive the commitment and accountability process for implementation. 

While there are many challenges that face any team, when someone is passive-aggressive, it's the one behavior that will quickly undermine your team's success and put it in a downward spiral. Left unchecked it will eat away at the fabric of your team's culture.

Passive-aggressiveness is when someone seems willing and agreeable at one time, then after plans have been made and put in motion, disagrees with the course of action and works to derail and sabotage the effort. Usually, this is combined with highly defensive language and deflection by pointing out other problems or shifting blame to other people.

Here are the five key steps I suggest leaders use when they see signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Following these steps can help minimize the impact of this behavior on your team and hopefully turn the ship around.

1. Call it out.

Though this might seem easy, this bit is actually quite hard. Someone who is an expert at being passive-aggressive is likely a master at deflection and at bringing up other issues to distracting the team. Unless you step back and see these tricks for what they are, you'll fall into the trap.

Look for two things. First, a quiet and seemingly compliant attitude when discussing key issues and directions. If someone is just going with the flow, they are likely not bringing up deeper concerns or voicing opinions. This is dangerous because left unresolved, their concerns can fester and pop up later.

Second, look for me-versus-you language. If someone is talking about how they did or didn't want something and how someone else did or didn't do something, suspect a passive-aggressive dynamic. A true team member sees everything from the perspective of the team and will use 'us' more than 'I' in their conversations.

Once you've identified it, call it out. My suggestion is to use the phrase: "I feel we didn't get your complete buy-in on this approach and now you are not supporting the priorities we're trying to implement, is that the case?" 

2. Ask for a change in behavior.

Get clear on what you want to happen differently going forward. Make it a request and wait for them to either accept the request or say they are unwilling to change. If the latter occurs, then you have a different problem and you need to decide if they should stay on the team.

Typically the request has two parts. First, you want to make it clear that it's critical for everyone to support and work to implement decisions and priorities the group decides on together. There can be no ifs, and's, or buts about this one. Second, ask them to be more vocal in the discussion, to contribute more to the debate, and to make sure they have either voiced any and all concerns or let them go.

3. Acknowledge your own contribution.

Even if you think you've done a pretty good job in making sure everyone was heard and your team had an engaging debate, you need to look at what you can do differently, too. Finding things you can improve upon and acknowledging how you can make the situation better will create more possibilities for the other person to be willing to make changes as well.

4. Confirm everyone's commitment.

When discussing decisions and directions as a team, pay extra attention to the conversation. Make sure everyone not only has a chance to speak but actually insist on everyone voicing their concerns and opinions. Don't give anyone wiggle room to avoid speaking, even if you have to wait through a few minutes of silence. While you may feel pressure to push through the process, you'll only pay more for it later if you do.

5. Address the underlying issues.

Sometimes there are real and valid issues at the core of someone's passive-aggressive behavior. While it's not an excuse, consider what might be driving the situation and address the issues constructively. However, don't let that distract you from calling out the behavioral issue as well. Both need to be tackled head-on.

Passive-aggressive behavior is not always easy to spot and can be even harder to deal with. And there is a real possibility the behavior won't change. The most important thing is to spot it early and address it immediately so you can minimize its deteriorating impact on your team's culture.

Published on: Feb 26, 2020
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