Blog

When Passive Aggressive Meets The Truth #meanit

He was the poster-child for passive aggressive (at least that’s my side of the story). In an effort to keep the peace, I’d tried to shake it off. I’d kept my mouth shut, and encouraged my team to take the “high road”. But the high road was getting bumpier with time.

With all this #meanit talk, I realized I needed to take a bit of my own advice; but frankly, I was worried about the political ramifications.

And then the best kind of truth-telling realization. What kind of role model am I if I say what I mean, only when it feels safe? I had to address the scene.

I confronted Mr. Passive Aggressive. I shared my concern about the tenor of his emails, the endless digging for problems, the data sent over my head without a chance to review… Calmly, carefully, but truthfully. And held my breath. My truth.

We connected and he responded. Of course he didn’t MEAN to come across that way, after all he’s just trying to help. We’re all in this together. His truth.

There was my window: “I would LOVE your help…THIS is what would be most helpful”. We spent over an hour discussing our common concerns and joint goals. We got specific on what matters most and how we could help one another. Our truth.

Then he shared with surprising candor, “But I have to say. I can’t change the way I communicate. My emails are not intended to be aggressive, I just get really fired up. This is how I communicate with everyone.” His truth.

Somehow that statement also felt like progress.

I responded, “Thank you for letting me know so I’ll be prepared. Here’s what I can assure you, I will never send you an email with that tone.” My truth.

You guessed it. The tone has improved. All the other support we discussed is playing out. The business is better off. We’re both in a better place.

When we respond by being passive, we quietly encourage continued aggression.

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior

Understand The Other Point Of View – Somethings going on underneath that wacky behavior. Do your best to understand the person and their scene. Get to know them as a fellow human being. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the best they can.

Take the High Road – Taking the high road has nothing to do with rolling over or shutting down. It’s about not emulating the passive aggressive behavior. Resist the urge the fight fire with fire, or take the offensive. Stay true to your leadership values and role model what must be done.

Stay Calm – Responding in an emotional way will only bring on the passive response, leaving you looking like (and feeling like) the fool. Nothing’s more intimidating to someone trying to manipulate you then a calm, clear-headed, overview of the situation.

Be Specific – Avoid speaking in general terms. Track specific behaviors that feel wrong to have as examples as needed. It’s hard to argue with the facts.

Tell Your Truth – I’ll never know if he was truly “just trying to help” or if there was an ulterior motive. I’ve decided that just doesn’t matter. When you’re gut tells you somethings wrong, something’s wrong, even if it’s just a mis-communication. Truth speaking encourages a truthful response, even if it’s not something we want to hear.  Better to get it all out in the open.

 Ask For What You Need – It’s hard for someone to work against you after they’ve agreed to help you.  Resist the urge for lofty platitudes like “I really need your help.” Or, “I need your commitment to work as a team.” Instead said, I could really use your help with addressing X issue at the meeting on Tuesday.

Your Turn: How do you deal with passive aggressive behavior?
Filed Under:   Authenticity & Transparency, Communication
 
 
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt is a leadership speaker, consultant, and MBA professor. She's a former Verizon Wireless executive with two decades of diverse cross-functional experience in sales, customer service and HR. Karin was named as a top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. She is author of, "Overcoming an Imperfect Boss: A Practical Guide to Building a Better Relationship With Your Boss." Karin knows the stillness of a yogi, the reflective road of a marathoner and the joy of being a mom raising emerging leaders.
 

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

Matt McWilliams   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Usually I return the passive aggressiveness. I’ll admit that.

I am usually light on the aggressiveness part, though and just withdraw from the person. I reserve the aggressiveness for when I’m alone and seething or ranting to others.

Not much of a helpful answer, but an honest answer to your question.

letsgrowleaders   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Matt, You and I do have much in common. I have been avoiding and withdrawing from this particular scene for a while. It occured to me though, that that was setting a terrible example for my team. They needed me to stand up and address it, to make their lives easier. Honestly, I was amazed at the response. I should have done it much sooner.

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Karin- very recently on a LinkedIn Group a commenter started very aggressive responses to me because my point of view didn’t coincide with his. He turned very aggressive. I am a firm believer that conflicts which may harm two parties should be avoided. They are like car accidents- no one benefits. So, very calmly I responded. This initially stirred more aggression from him. Finally, I offered him the option that I may delete all my comments, but stopped short of that out of respect for him because his responses would become “hanging in the air”. Later, he wrote to me apologizing his aggressiveness.

On a side note you wrote “Somethings going on underneath that wacky behavior. Good heavens as I am finishing a presentation entitled “Leaders coming to fruition- but to what fruits”? Some examples include leaders with hard shell on the outside, but with gelatinous texture inside.

letsgrowleaders   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Ali, I love the option of withdrawing all your comments. P.S. I think I might have seen the guy you’re talking about, or someone like him. I’m astounded that people will act like Turkeys on a LinkedIn group…. don’t they realize it’s a CAREER site?

Looking forward to seeing your presentation. Please do share with us when it’s ready.

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Karin- more astonishing is that they “revert to type” with others.
A personal question: what type of fruit is your leadership is?

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   07 March 2014   |  

Sorry as I repeated is twice. The only comfort I have is that you repeated that twice in your response to Matt.

Samantha   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

I couldn’t NOT respond to this post as I’ve had quite a bit of experience with PA people.

I could share much on this topic however, I’ll limit it to one thing. While there are no guarantees, it’s important to attempt to create a safe space for someone who exhibits passive aggressive behavior. They learned to be indirect for good reasons at one time. They weren’t able to get their needs met by asking or communicating directly. Perhaps they were even punished for trying. So providing and reinforcing safety while also being assertive at the same time so as not to enable behavior is key.

The challenge is if we are NEW to being assertive, we may demand our rights MORE then being willing to listen to the other person. So as you point out, this would only serve to shut the PA down further from being able to communicate directly and openly.

Great post.

letsgrowleaders   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Samantha, Thanks so much for joining in and expanding the conversation. You raise some really important points here. I so love your idea of providing safety, since the last thing we feel like doing is protecting these folks that are driving us crazy… when indeed, it might be the real solution to the problem.

Samantha   |   07 March 2014   |  

Exactly. There’s been more then once occasion where I’ve wound up being like a Spartan fortifying my position (you aren’t getting through ME anymore! (grins) then worried about creating that safe space for the other person. In those cases, I had let things build up for too long. If I would have asserted myself from the beginning in those situation, I wouldn’t have demonstrated such a ‘harsh’ reaction to the PA’s behavior.

So it really is a key solution…IF we can stay conscious enough to not slip right into our own ego defense mechanism.

Steve Borek   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Two times in my professional life, due to no faulty I’ve my own, I’ve received an aggressive email. One time, it was in caps, the other the font was twice the norm in size.

Each time, I didn’t respond in writing. I picked up the phone and called ‘aggressive’ immediately, asking for a face to face.

I neutralized the situation. Not sure I changed the person’s mind regarding what they were upset about. Though, I felt good about the way I handled the circumstance.

letsgrowleaders   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Steve, Perfect. That’s exactly why this scene turned around too…. email is no place to deal with conflict. Thanks so much for adding that. On a sidenote, it’s funny that every now and then I’ll get a really aggressive email from a stranger who’s read my blog…. really, really mad. I get comments like “go get a job.” and stuff like that which I find quite amusing, because they clearly aren’t following too closely. I think some people are just fishing for fights. Those, I just delete.

Steve Borek   |   07 March 2014   |  

Really? Wow. People need to get a life.

bill holston   |   07 March 2014   |  

This is exactly my response to this article. I am 57 years old, very comfortable with technology and email. However, I have real reservations about email, especially if it has to have ‘tone’, for often there really isn’t a tone of voice. Have you noticed if someone reads and email that they perceive as aggressive, they read it with that tone of voice. My rule is in an email exchange becomes at all aggressive, I switch to phone and personal visit.

Karin   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

On the other hand, I just got a wonderful (and helpful) email from one of our subscribers worried that #meanit might be misinterpreted as advocating meanness versus sincerity. Is any one else struggling with that?

Jon Mertz   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Karin,

Mindfulness plays a big role here in how to deal with challenging behaviors. Being aware, paying attention, remembering to breathe… are all essential practices so we can respond thoughtfully rather than react carelessly.

Enjoyed your points here. Thanks!

Jon

Bill Benoist   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

Passive aggressive behavior in others has always been a weakness with me. I think it has to do with my primary strength of Connectedness (Clifton Strengthsfinder). I have always found myself shying away from conflict.

You offer some good strategies and I think I will tape this list next to my computer for the next difficult circumstance ☺

LaRae Quy   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

You offer great advice here, Karin. Full confession: when I want to get my way, I can turn into an amazing passive aggressive….

You made a statement that I think diffuses the power of the passive aggressive: “I’ll never know if he was truly “just trying to help” or if there was an ulterior motive. I’ve decided that just doesn’t matter. When you’re gut tells you somethings wrong, something’s wrong, even if it’s just a miscommunication.”

I have found that most folks will never “call me out” on my behavior because they don’t trust their gut. They hesitate, because a truly experienced passive aggressive will never give enough “evidence” to confirm anyone’s suspicions…

Anonymous   |   07 March 2014   |   Reply

I enjoyed this article. I completely see where you are coming from. At times emai and text can come across the ‘wrong’ way because we do not see emotions. I have to admit if someone emails me and I feel a tone that im uncomfortable with I used to just ignore it. Realizing I cant ignore things I have learned to address uncomfortable sutuations head on.. lll think about it then adress it. My biggest issue is and maybe you can help answer this. How do deal with a passive aggressive person when you are face to face ?

letsgrowleaders   |   08 March 2014   |   Reply

I actually think it’s easier face to face. Staying calm, looking at them in the eye, and speaking your truth.

Jacquie Garton-Smith   |   08 March 2014   |   Reply

Great strategies to deal with toxic behaviour Karin. People may not always realise they are being passive aggressive and often they will have gained from this behaviour in the past but this has to be called to account, and your suggestions are respectful, tactful and firm. I think it’s fantastic to be having this conversation as so often it is swept under the carpet… Hmmm a lot like bullying used to be….

Terri Klass   |   08 March 2014   |   Reply

A great post, Karin and a great dialogue going on!

I have found that the best way to communicate is assertively. That means expressing your needs, wants or desires clearly and directly while still being respectful of the other person’s point of view. That is the kicker. Validating another’s point of view is essential and a positive way to share differences.

When I am confronted with a passive-aggressive swinger, I try to stay calm and rephrase the challenge in an assertive way.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 March 2014   |   Reply

Terri, great addition. Validating the others point of view is so important and then speaking your truth. #meanit

Alli Polin   |   09 March 2014   |   Reply

I feel like I’ve worked with that person!

Unfortunately, I’m not as great as I’d like to be about addressing passive aggressive behavior head-on. Usually, I’ll wait until the pain is greater than the risk of speaking up. Great approach, huh?

Truth be told, every time I have one of those tough conversations, things always get better and I can’t recall a time it’s ever made it worse.

Thanks for sharing your story and approach!

Eileen   |   13 March 2014   |   Reply

I do not like it when my boyfriend tries to con me into doing things I do not want to do. So I just tell him to cut it out or I will not do what he wants to do and he will not get anything extra out of me. That is how to deal with passive aggressive people.

PA   |   13 March 2014   |   Reply

As an old P-A personality with a 1 in 600 IQ, I find great entertainment fencing with anyone attempting to ‘influence’ me.
Saying your ‘truth’ may not get you what you want. But running games will yield a guaranteed and untraceable fail.
I have met very few ‘leaders’ with sufficient vision to inform me.
Most have proven to be myopic organ grinders, keeping their manacled monkeys moving while they steal all of the peanuts.