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Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

We have all been guilty of having acted in passive-aggressive ways in our work and in our relationships, and at times we have had to deal with others behaving in that manner as well. But, when passive-aggressiveness starts to amplify in Agile teams, it can lead to lowering trust and morale within the organization. Ultimately, if not addressed by leadership, this could destroy productivity. Leadership needs to understand ways to dampen and remove the issue before that irreparable damage takes hold.

Identifying the behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is someone dealing with stress, anger, or annoyance in a non-forthcoming way. Instead of directly voicing why they are feeling a particular way, those feelings manifest themselves in non-constructive and aggressive actions toward others. At work, these actions could include:

  • Sabotaging collaborative work by not attending meetings

  • Not following team approved processes

  • Avoiding taking responsibilities

  • Being late or non-responsive

  • Gossip or rumors with the intent to get other team members in trouble

  • Sarcasm

  • Escalating issues rather than dealing directly with teammates

  • Insisting on exclusive ownership

  • High degrees of inflexibility

Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior

To dampen the aggression, you do need to recognize the possible reasons why people act out in this way. Sometimes this comes from a deep feeling of being under-appreciated, marginalized, or powerless in their work. It can also come from things outside of work as well that lead to them feeling like a victim and helpless to address issues directly. In some cases, the feelings may be warranted depending on your team environment. So dampening the problem may need to address both the passive-aggressive team member and any underlying issues in the team environment.

Addressing the behaviors with the individual

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of addressing the issue is working directly with the person exhibiting the negative behaviors. The goal is to use positive coaching techniques to help the person understand the problem behaviors and to focus on a plan to resolve the issues. Here are a few tips to help you with that conversation:

  • Be ready for the discussion. The conversation may be difficult, and you will want to be calm and present.

  • Have the facts. Don't rely on hearsay, and be prepared with examples around things you have directly observed.

  • Have the conversation in a private place where it cannot be overheard by other team members.

  • Calmly state the specific issues, and avoid over-generalizations.

  • Expect that they may get angry, but be sure that you remain calm. The goals is to create a safe, non-confrontational space to work on the issues.

  • Allow them to talk, and help them formulate ways to resolve their issues.

  • Be an active listener.

  • Be empathic, but don't get derailed by the person trying to deflect the problem off to somebody else. Refocus the conversation on what needs fixing.

  • If you have a more significant team environment issue, then acknowledge that you are working on those issues and that this conversation is a part of that.

Addressing the team environment

As I stated earlier, sometimes the work environment instigates passive-aggressive behaviors in people. As a coach and leader, you can't control the actions of other people, but you can have a tremendous impact on the environment in how you role model open and honest communication. This is especially true if you have positional power in your company because people tend to role model your behaviors.

Reflect on your communications by soliciting feedback. Actively listen for the things you may be doing that may be causing issues—things like disempowering people, not giving recognition, punishing people who disagree with you, or being passive-aggressive yourself. After that, reflect upon what you have learned to set personal goals to be a better role model in your company.

Final thoughts

The issues around passive-aggressive behaviors are never easy or comfortable. Even with this, leaders, coaches, and team members must put energy into addressing problems early so they don't get into a more significant and harder to fix work environment issue. Just remember to actively listen, reflect, and dampen issues as soon as they are detected.


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