Passive-Aggressive, Much?

The executive team was meeting, and you could cut the tension with a knife.  The feeling that something just wasn’t right between the VPs of Operations and Supply Chain Management was palpable. What once had been a cohesive, amiable relationship had clearly deteriorated to one of passive aggression.  Someone had to do something to mitigate impact on the other executives and influence on the interactions between the operations and supply chain departments. I was the head of HR, which meant “someone” was me.

When this scenario occurred a few years back, remote and hybrid work situations were not what they are today.  The tension level was felt throughout the organization because we were working in the office.   On the brighter side, addressing the situation was easier to manage because we were working in the office. 

When passive-aggressive rifts occur in a hybrid or fully virtual work environment, leaders find it not only difficult to address this behavior, but sometimes it’s nearly impossible.

For these leaders, having the ability and skill to gently, yet directly and immediately, address poor behaviors is essential for continued success. 

Some of you may be thinking, you know, I keep hearing that phrase but I’m not sure what passive aggression really is. 

Passive-Aggressive behavior is indirect and, at times, seemingly harmless or unintended actions that conceal a hostile motive. In the workplace, it can look like this.  An employee:

  • Refuses to discuss their concerns openly or directly.
  • Denies feelings of anger when confronted.
  • Is always late to work or meetings.
  • Often uses the "silent treatment" (refusal to communicate verbally) to express dissatisfaction.
  • Uses sarcasm to disguise insults.
  • Leaves tasks unfinished or does work at an unacceptable quality level.

These behaviors can start out seemingly small.  Imagine an employee who is late to a mandatory virtual team meeting. After repeated emails, phone calls, and text messages from the manager, the employee bursts onto the call with a complaint like, Good grief, I’m just a few minutes late!  What’s the big deal anyway? The manager is a bit taken aback and feels like a bully, while the employee’s colleagues feel awkward and somewhat embarrassed.  The passive-aggressive employee has achieved temporary compliance from other meeting attendees.

Like other aggressions, passive aggressions can escalate when not addressed immediately and directly.  Additional levels of include:

  • Intentional inefficiency. An employee will comply with a request but will do so problematically or unacceptably.
  • Problem escalation. An employee knows that an issue is about to occur, g., a customer isn’t going to receive a product on time. A passive-aggressive person does nothing, deliberately setting up a problem between the customer and the organization.

Although there are additional escalated levels of passive-aggressive behavior, these first three are most likely to occur if a leader doesn’t actively address poor behavior.

Going back to our example, when I spoke with the VPs independently, I learned that a friend of the VP of Operations was not chosen as a preferred vendor by the VP of Supply Chain Management.  The VP, Ops was hurt by the VP, SCM’s decision; he felt betrayed and disrespected, not to mention taking a hit to the ego.  However, when I spoke with the VP, SCM, he was unaware that this was a friend of the VP, Ops and stated that his decision was based on criteria that this vendor lacked. Bringing the two together, we addressed the situation and the feelings, and, knowing that human beings often inadvertently hurt and misunderstand each other, designed an acceptable action plan for future occurrences or misunderstandings.

Learning to engage in trusting, respectful conversations that address conflict, regardless of the location of the colleagues, is a skill that can be learned. Here’s a place to start: 

  1. Identify the behaviors that are unacceptable. Note the day and time that you observe the behaviors.
  2. Speak to the employee, immediately and directly. Explain what you see (actions) and hear (tone).
  3. Ask for feedback and an explanation from the employee.
  4. Actively listen. Watch for signs of passive-aggressiveness in the conversation (reference the list above).
  5. Co-create actionable steps to help the employee address the situation. This may mean having a conversation with another colleague to address the conflict.
  6. Co-create a plan for handling future situations.
  7. Follow-up with the employee often.

Diffusing these situations frequently doesn’t happen overnight, and you may find yourself repeating Items 2 through 6 above as you and your team work out the misunderstanding.  Patience and consistency are the by-words of the day.

What happened with my VPs who were not behaving like VPs?  The frank discussion allowed lines of communication to be reopened; the relationship and their willingness and ability to work together were restored, and their departments were able to work harmoniously.  Both leaders apologized to their fellow executives and their respective teams, using their behavior as an example of how NOT to handle situations of miscommunication.  It was a great lesson about how a misunderstanding led to passive-aggressive behavior and how a relationship between leaders influenced and impacted others throughout the organization.

Are you addressing the unacceptable behaviors in your team and within your organization? 

My workshop, “The 7 Elements of High Performing Teams”, provides a foundation for greater team engagement while building trusting, respectful relationships for greater collaboration and increased and improved communication.

Let’s chat. 


P.S.  Book a Complimentary Strategy Session so we can get you moving in the right direction; click on my Complimentary Strategy Session calendar link here and let’s book a time together so you can get started today!

P.P.S. With over three decades of professional experience in corporate operations and executive human resources, I am a proven results-driven leader. My expertise includes strategy, change management, talent management and organizational development, employee relations, and executive and leadership coaching. I am a highly effective communicator and team leader with demonstrated ability to build long-term relationships across internal and external customer environments built with integrity, confidence, authenticity, and trust.