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What Causes Passive Aggressive Behaviors at Work?

Leadership is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, leaders who are too controlling make their people feel uncomfortable making decisions.  On the other hand, leaders who don’t provide enough guidance create a culture that fosters inconsistency and lacks goals.  Both extremes cause passive aggressive behaviors that break down corporate culture and damage trust.  Leaders need to establish the “guide rails” for their teams to operate within but allow enough flexibility for them to make decisions.  They also have to trust their people to make good choices.  This also applies between organizations.  Teams have to trust one another to meet clearly defined expectations and must follow up to hold one another accountable.  This balancing act is why leadership is so tough.  You have to know that organizational goals are being met but people have to be able to help define their destiny.

A Silicon Valley company that I worked in had a unique approach to inter-organizational collaboration.  Groups would write policy documents and load them into the document control system.  They would then start referring to the documents as if they were long established and agreed upon rules.  There was no socialization of these policies before they were enforced. People soon realized that processes and policies had no force of governance and that there was no authority for these roles so they were ignored.  The general belief around the company was that “processes” were arbitrary and that policies in general were mere guidelines that could be ignored.  This created further distrust across organizations.

One dangerous symptom of corporate passive aggression is that decisions don’t get made at all.  Meet after meeting is scheduled to “discuss” what needs to be done but nobody is empowered to make policy or operational changes.  They either fear making a decision counter to the overbearing leader or afraid that they’re on their own in the decision and will be blamed if it goes wrong.  Either way, the product is usually a Powerpoint slide deck that is created and people are encouraged to follow the “recommendation”.  Often there is no leader expressing ownership or driving the outcome.

Passive aggressive cultures are frustrating and demoralizing.  Leaders have to understand what type of culture that their style creates and manage it closely.  Breaking passive aggressive habits are difficult but not impossible.  You have to step back and clearly define expectations; what do you need from others and what do you deliver and to whom.  From there responsibility will grow.  It takes patience to change organizational culture, more than most people will allow for, and don’t let detractors tell you otherwise.  There’s no magic button you can press, it takes perseverance and hard work.

2 comments to What Causes Passive Aggressive Behaviors at Work?

  • Very good post. It’s very hard to break the passive aggressive habits when the passive aggressive doesn’t or can’t admit to the problem. Unfortunately they tend to be pretty useless as leaders and more often than not, to get rid of the problem you have to get rid of them.

  • Devin

    Ladybeams, You make a great point. People that are exhibiting passive aggressive behavior often don’t know that they’re doing it. They’re either reacting to the environment or they don’t have enough guidance and aren’t the type of person that can create their own goals and objectives. They often look to others to lead and they will gladly and capably work towards defined goals. Unfortunately, one of the behaviors that is all too common is that they block projects because they’re afraid of change. You really have to spend extra time showing them why it is really in their best interest to go in the new direction and that they are capable. Fear is a major driving factor in this situation.

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