One of the problems with passive aggressive behaviour is, that by its very nature, it can be hard to detect, never mind fix. Passive aggressive behaviour is anger repressed and then expressed indirectly. It can wreak havoc without you necessarily understanding how. But if we feel in our gut that something is a bit ‘off’ with someone’s response, there’s a chance we’re being faced with an instance of passive aggressive behaviour. Here are a few suggestions for how to deal with it when it skulks shiftily, sulkily to the surface!
Summarise what your interpretation of their message is
Passive aggressiveness can be in part fear of honesty – a person’s lack of courage about being open with their anger. If you do it (calmly) for them, it will help things.
Avoid fighting fire with fire
Recognise that passive aggressive behaviour is often done unintentionally. This person may have grown up in a household where it was not OK to express negative emotion. Many of us did. Try to be compassionate in the face of it. Mindfulness techniques come in very handy here, in that they help us check our own responses before automatically acting on them.
Understand the role of hierarchy
The nature of workplaces – particularly insofar as they involve hierarchy – means that passive aggressiveness is more likely to rear its head. Anger is generally not OK in the workplace, and certainly not towards your superiors. One way to address this is to make your business a (relatively) safe space for the expression of anger. You can do this by framing it professionally as the eradication of ambiguity: ambiguity is simply poor communication and bad for business, and passive aggressiveness is just one form of ambiguity.
Read body language
As a leader, get adept at interpreting body language. What is a report’s body language saying that their words are not? Don’t let people withdraw sulkily from arguments, which is classic passive aggressive behaviour. ‘Honestly, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it’ – this is about as unfine as it gets, and their body language is probably screaming that fact.
Recognise when ‘not doing’ is being done passive aggressively
Sometimes there’s a very good reason that something wasn’t done. Sometimes it is a passive aggressive act. If you eliminate all the good reasons, then passive aggressiveness is quite likely to be the cause. That said, make sure you’ve discounted reasons around emotional struggles that have nothing to do with passive aggressiveness.