Facing off with your Passive-Aggressive Managers

Behind-a-mask-L

You might be a C-Suite level boss with many managers below you. Many in your management pool may carry over their personal dysfunctions into their work life. Truly, “Who you are is how you lead”.

Not sure if the employee is passive aggressive or just passive? Passive Aggression is an indirect way to express hostility. You could compare it to a stab in the back vs. a slap on the face. It can be confusing, at first, to identify what’s going on because it can be so subtle. Some common identifiers of passive aggression:

  1. Not showing up at meetings, being habitually late, or leaving early when others are pressing in
  2. Calling in sick at key times
  3. Making lots of excuses and blame-casting for poor behavior
  4. Withholding information from other team members
  5. Making inappropriate remarks and then passing it off as a joke
  6. Sarcasm
  7. Dragging out simple processes from approving forms or dispensing reimbursements to approving transfers and promotions
  8. Feigning ignorance about the impact of their behavior on their colleagues and subordinates

These employees and managers can be your in-house saboteurs. This behavior sets a negative tone at work, builds walls between departments and politicizes the environment. It also amplifies other employees’ negative feelings, thus becoming a  contagion of discontent. We become complicit when we allow such behavior to go unaddressed.

How to Respond

Since passive aggression can be easily denied (“I didn’t technically say I didn’t want to do the project”). I suggest you focus on the observable behaviors, themselves: Attack the behavior, not the individual. Address the concerns in supervisory one-on-ones as soon as the pattern becomes apparent.

As described in an earlier post , sometimes we have to spell out seemingly obvious standards of professionalism.

At executive team meetings insist that your managers speak up about any feelings or questions they have about new directives or policies. To paraphrase Jim Collins, “if you don’t weigh in, you won’t buy in”. It is unacceptable for such an employee to sit in silence and then go out badmouthing the directive to their team or entertaining dissent. Collins refers to another organization head’s principle of relational maturity: Learn to disagree and commit. The time for conflict is in the board room. The managers must leave as a united front having left their opinions in the room. Let them know that they will be held accountable for negative voices coming out of their shop to the rest of the Division.

Sanction abuses of time and leave. The weekly “Monday morning emergency”, “meeting day migraine” or tough project “escape clause” has to cost the employee.

Make sure their first line of communication in any conflict situation is verbal and face-to-faceEmail and social media have become the battlefield of choice for so much undercover confrontation andt hey damage organizational relationships and morale. Disallow the endless back-and-forth as things get heated and insist on in-person airing of grievance whether up or down the chain.

Finally, help them grow in Emotional Intelligence (E.I.) by expressing their feelings in real time and managing their meta-communications, that non-verbal conversation that’s going on beneath the surface. It’s a teachable opportunity to grow and if the manager is willing, they might just make it to the top.

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