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What is passive-aggressive behaviour, and how do I manage it?

As leaders, effective communication is our bread and butter. 

Through trial and (sometimes many!) errors, we learn how to communicate more effectively. Alongside this, we are also supporting our colleagues to develop their ability to communicate more effectively. This can be both rewarding, and emotionally taxing.

There are four major types of communication:

What is passive-aggressive behaviour, and how do I manage it_mary-annemurphy.com_P5

One area that can cause much angst for leaders is managing passive aggressive behaviour. 

So what does passive-aggressive behaviour look like?

People who use this form of communication will often:

  • Deny or repress feelings of anger.
  • Use brief, deflecting responses such as “I’m fine” and “Whatever” when someone asks them if they are upset.
  • Withdraw and sulk.
  • Use the silent treatment.
  • Create minor but chronic irritation in others.
  • Be overtly cooperative but covertly uncooperative.
  • Procrastinate or carry out tasks inefficiently.
  • Be evasive and secretive.
  • Use email, texting, social media, and other forms of technology to avoid direct communication.
  • Project angry feelings on others.
  • Cast themselves into the role of victim of an overtly angry person.
  • Be quietly manipulative and controlling.
  • Cause others to swallow their anger and eventually blow up.
  • Make endless promises to change.
  • Create a feeling in others of being on an emotional roller coaster.
  • Undermine others
  • Use ambiguity and avoid taking responsibility
  • Do less than agreed, do it late or do it sloppily
  • Negativity (pouting, resisting influence or creating arguments)
  • Withholding important information
  • Frenemy-type of behavior (back-stabbing)
  • Backhanded compliments (Not bad for someone with your skills)
  • Microaggression or covert aggression & covert power moves

In context, it may come across in comments and behaviours such as:

  • “Well, I guess I’m not important enough to be invited”
  • “We’re not in the “A” team.
  • “Can you please help me with this, because … doesn’t have time for me”.
  • “When were you intending on telling us about that?”.
  • Avoiding eye contact, and “the silent treatment”.
  • Saying ‘yes’, then doing nothing, repeatedly.

The chart below shows what it looks like in relation to other forms of communication.

Chart displaying the four major types of communication

How might we manage this type of behaviour? 

Key to managing passive-aggressive behaviour is first recognising it, and not leading, or mirroring (copying) it.

Behavioural psychologist, William Glasser stated that “All behaviour is a form of communication”. Our role as leaders is to support people to communicate their needs more effectively, and it begins with turning the mirror towards ourselves first.

One method in addressing passive-aggressive behaviour is “Benign Confrontation”. This includes calling out the behaviour for what it is. 

“It seems to me that you’re angry…”

You don’t need to know why they are angry, you are drawing attention to the underlying feeling that may be there.

Should they respond with denial “No I’m not”, then a response such as “It’s just a thought I wanted to share with you, and I’m glad it’s not the case”.

Should they wish to address their anger, then activate your active listening skills to identify the source, and renegotiate a new way of operating, or restate expectations.

Finishing with a genuine conciliatory closing statement such as “I’m looking forward to working alongside you on this” will confirm that you are ready to continue the relationship on a different footing.

I also invite you to reflect on your own communication: 

  • Which quadrant does it sit in and with who? 
  • Why might that be?
  • How might others experience your communication?

Go well 🙂

Roche Martin Emotional Capital Certification Training.

Take your Emotional Capital knowledge to the next level. 

If you’re someone who wants to make a difference, to start a ripple (or tidal wave) within your organisation, or create your own business as an emotional intelligence coach, trainer and assessor, then it begins with emotional intelligence certification training.

This is the only place in NZ where you can receive Roche Martin EC Certification Training. My next course is 15 – 17 December 2021 in Raglan, New Zealand full details here. 


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