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The Champion Forum Podcast

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Addressing Passive Aggressive Employees

Thank you for listening to The Champion Forum Podcast with Jeff Hancher! Have you ever led someone who chose to communicate their frustration with a snarky tone of voice, backbiting, and avoidance? These passive-aggressive techniques leave leaders feeling exhausted. Leading a passive-aggressive employee requires patience, empathy, and clear communication. You can transform negativity into productivity by recognizing the behavior, addressing it directly, listening actively, setting clear expectations, providing support, and holding them accountable. Today, we'll discuss how to identify passive-aggressive employees and address their negative behaviors.

Signs of Passive Aggression:

  • They act nice to your face but say bad things about you behind your back.

  • They tell you one thing with their words, but their tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures tell a different story.

  • They block your efforts or undermine your work.

  • They deny that anything is wrong when you confront them about it.

  • They are very sarcastic.

  • They gossip.

Q: Have you ever worked with someone who was passive-aggressive? What was it like? Have you ever been passive-aggressive? What contributed to you choosing that approach? How did you resolve the situation?

How to Deal With Passive Aggressive Employees

1. Don't play into it!

Whatever you do, stay composed. And I realize this is very hard to do. Returning passive-aggressive behavior with more passive aggression or even direct aggression will only make it worse. If they are being passive-aggressive to get what they want, then "getting a rise" out of you will reward their behavior. They'll learn that their passive aggression is an effective tool to achieve their goals. The other extreme is that they're doing it because they don't want to cause conflict, but indirectly doing just that. And by allowing the behavior to continue, nothing will change.

2.  Be Assertive

When you model assertiveness, you are modeling behavior that creates a culture where people can be transparent about what they need and expect. When being assertive, follow these steps:

1. Speak to them in private. 

2. Use "I" statements to provide specific examples of the behavior you've witnessed. 

3. Ask them direct questions to allow them to clarify their intent vs. impact. 

3.  Reset Clear Expectations and Hold Them Accountable

If they deflect your feedback by saying your standards are too high or that they didn't realize your expectations, they are likely trying to divert attention away from themselves. You need to establish clear standards and regularly reiterate what you expect from them so that you can hold them accountable. It's also important to explain the consequences of what will happen if they do it again.

4. Recap your discussion in writing.

You can use a formal disciplinary form or a simple email recap of the discussion. Doing this will make it difficult for them to claim they didn't understand what you expected.

Q: Have you ever worked with someone who was passive-aggressive? What did your leader do? Did they try any of the tips listed above? How do you think they could have more positively affected the situation? 

Application Activities:

  1. Conduct a personality analysis of the people on your team. Some companies will provide this service, but you can also get a lot out of having everyone on your team take a simple test online, whether it is Myers-Briggs, DISC, Enneagram, or whatever other test you are comfortable with. Share the results with your team members and highlight potential areas for conflict. Understanding the personalities on your team can help reduce passive-aggressive tendencies and show people what healthy communication between different personalities can look like.

  2. Work on creating a culture that promotes openness and vulnerability. A straightforward way to encourage your team to be honest and transparent is by modeling that behavior yourself. Try sharing how you are feeling when a member of your team asks how you are. You could share something that excites you or an area where you feel nervous or overwhelmed. If someone does something that hurts you or goes against the expectations you set for your culture, address it honestly. Reading the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a great way to ensure you can do these things in a way that builds trust instead of erodes it.


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