Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Work

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Effective communication is important to every successful organization because it enables the dissemination of information needed by employees to get things done and it builds relationships based on trust and commitment. Both are equally important.

In the workplace, effective communication can increase efficiency and productivity, enhance employee engagement, and decrease turnover. Conversely, ineffective communication can undermine efficiency and productivity, decrease engagement, and increase absenteeism and turnover.

As an organization development consultant and leadership coach, the challenges presented to me by clients very often come in the form of ineffective communication, and more often than not this has to do with some passive-aggressive behavior. It seems this is all too common in the workplace and is undermining our ability to communicate effectively.

I grew up in the Chicago area and I’ve now lived in Seattle for more than 30 years. While I have fully adapted and embraced my life in Seattle, I am continually confounded by the often polite yet oftentimes insincere behavior of people I encounter. It may be of little surprise then that three of my closest friends are also transplants from the Midwest where direct and blunt communication is more common.

Seattleites are often referred to as nice, but not necessarily friendly. A driver will sometimes come to a four-way stop at the same time as others and not simply yield to the driver on the right, but insist on waiting for the other person to go—regardless of their position. Then they complain about traffic congestion. Or people who agree to join you on a hike or other activity decline at the last-minute knowing full well they didn’t want to go in the first place, but wouldn’t say so.

In the workplace, passive-aggressive behavior shows up in many forms such as: committing to action items and then not following through; acting friendly with coworkers and then speaking about them negatively behind their backs; speaking publicly about the benefits of collaboration across the organization yet covertly maintaining a silo mentality.

Passive-aggressive behavior is often a way for people to get their emotional point across without having healthy conflict, according to Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and coauthor of Primal Leadership. It can also be due to their inability to communicate or deal with conflict effectively.

McKee suggests recounting how some of your previous interactions have played out and explaining the impact they have had on you and perhaps others. If it’s feasible, show how that behavior is working against what he or she cares about, such as achieving the organization’s goals. However, whatever you do, don’t accuse the person of being passive-aggressive as this will only make him or her defensive.

Specifically, McKee suggests the following for how you can deal effectively with passive-aggressive behavior:

  1. Consider what’s motivating the behavior – Ensure that their assumptions are accurate.
  2. Own your part – You likely share some aspect of the blame, so admit it.
  3. Focus on the content, not the delivery – Don’t get caught up in the emotion.
  4. Acknowledge the underlying issue – Read between the lines; all is not what it seems.
  5. Watch your language – Do not label or judge, but explain the impact their behavior is having on you.
  6. Find safety in numbers – Inquire how others’ comments may have impacted them.
  7. Set guidelines for everyone – Make it clear about who’s responsible for what and maintain accountability.
  8. Get help in extreme situations – When necessary, recruit others to help you move forward with someone in a position of greater power.
  9. Protect yourself – Don’t disregard your own work and avoid contact with this person if at all possible.

Both the person behaving passive-aggressively and the person responding to it ineffectively can be viewed through the lens of emotional intelligence. Navigating relationships effectively when under stress requires maintaining an understanding of what one thinks, wants and feels in relation to the other, along with being able regulate one’s behavior and demonstrate empathy while in those situations.

Dealing effectively with someone who behaves passive-aggressively, therefore, requires you to rely on your ability to really know and control yourself while also showing concern for the other person.

Passive-aggressive behavior is at odds with the effective communication necessary for trust and commitment in successful relationships. You can do your part to lessen the spread and severity of those who behave this way. When more of us engage in a healthy response to passive-aggressive behavior, the less we will feel and see its impact. And this will result in helping to raise effective communication in the workplace.

Collaborator in Chief

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The result of the recent presidential election means Donald Trump will become leader of the United States of America. However, I don’t recall him ever previously referred to as a business leader or any kind of leader for that matter.

While he is reportedly a successful businessman, he has absolutely no governing experience. Ironically, this was seen as an enormous strength rather than a weakness in this election. But business acumen doesn’t naturally translate into effective governing.

“Businesses tend to be dictatorships, where the edict of the CEO is carried out by an army of minions,” said Program Director A. G. Block of the University of California Center Sacramento. “Governance is a messy process where coalition-building is required and governors need to be good listeners willing to compromise. Goals also have social implications that business executives often do not consider when making business decisions. And their constituents in the business world—their stockholders—tend to be, for the most part, a homogenous group with one common goal: profits. As governor, the constituency is a varied mishmash with a variety of goals.”

The leader of the United States of America obviously cannot conduct himself like the CEO of a company. It is a unique leadership position that requires working collaboratively with others to protect and serve the citizens of the country. And our Founding Fathers ensured that the three branches of government provided the necessary checks and balances to keep a tyrant or dictator from taking over our democracy.

In a previous blog post I pointed out that Trump has demonstrated leadership qualities such as confidence, tenacity and negotiating skills. However, effective leaders also need to demonstrate integrity, humility, and the ability to inspire and motivate people. His performance in the presidential campaign provided few examples of integrity and humility.

His ability to inspire and motivate people certainly contributed to his success in bringing to the polls the disenfranchised voters who felt largely ignored by both parties. Yet it was his divisiveness that also brought out the worst in them rather than the best.

Though Trump can accomplish certain things without the help of Congress through Executive Actions, these can be easily overturned by his successor. This is exactly what he intends to do with many of President Obama’s Executive Actions. And this is no sustainable way to govern.

Important legislation can only be enacted with the help of Congress. And this requires collaboration. Though President Trump will have an easier time with an all-Republican Congress, he will no doubt face a great deal of opposition with many of the proposals he campaigned on from both Democrats and Republicans.

To be a successful President, he will need to collaborate with others rather than try to command and control them. He will need to learn the ability to compromise: to give a little in order to gain a little. Now that we are politically more divided as a country than ever before, this requires even greater collaboration skills.

It comes down to taking into account the importance of the tasks equally with the relationships. No one person in Washington will be able to accomplish big things without strong alliances with willing participants. And this requires the ability to collaborate successfully.

In their book Collaborative Leadership: How to succeed in an interconnected world, David Archer and Alex Cameron identified 10 key lessons for a successful collaborative leader.

1. Find the personal motive for collaborating
2. Find ways of simplifying complex situations for your people
3. Prepare for how you are going to handle conflict well in advance
4. Recognize that there are some people or organizations you just can’t partner with
5. Have the courage to act for the long term
6. Actively manage the tension between focusing on delivery and on building relationships
7. Invest in strong personal relationships at all levels
8. Inject energy, passion and drive into your leadership style
9. Have the confidence to share the credit generously
10. Continually develop your interpersonal skills, in particular: empathy, patience, tenacity, holding difficult conversations, and coalition building.

These lessons are just as important in running a country as they are in running a business. Reading over this list, I can’t help but think that many of these lessons do not necessarily come to mind with regard to Trump’s reputation as a businessman. If Donald Trump hopes to make progress on his campaign promises, he will need to find a way to collaborate effectively with the House and Senate.

Finally, leadership is not something one can be appointed to or elected to as it is something to be earned. True leaders are those who gain respect through their overall effectiveness combined with the way they lead their people. It is certainly about getting results, but it is also about the relationships that are inherently necessary in reaching those results. And those relationships require effective collaboration.

Thriving in the Workplace

employee-engagement

We live at a time when employee engagement is especially low. Employees are dissatisfied, discouraged and disinclined to be optimally productive. This is bad for both employers and employees.

According to Gallop’s 2012 State of the American Workplace, 70% of American workers said they feel they are not engaged at work. This comes at a time when competitive pressures and the technological rate of change are ever increasing.

Engaged employees are those who work with passion and feel a connection to the work and their company. They have a positive relationship with the people they work around and to the work itself. They are also vastly more productive than those who are not engaged.

Disengaged employees may show up to work, but they lack the enthusiasm and energy necessary to thrive. Disengaged employees are pervasive yet most are not actively disengaged, which can be especially harmful to an organization. Nevertheless, it is this lack of engagement that really hinders organizations.

It also impacts the ability for employees to thrive. And without thriving employees, organizations can’t bring about the innovation and creative problem solving required to be competitive in the 21st century.

The solution is for employers to provide an environment suitable to engage employees and for employees to do their part to be engaged. This second part is just as important as no amount of incentives will raise engagement without the employee’s own involvement.

While it is possible to find and hire employees who are naturally inclined to thrive regardless of where they work, the workplace environment can certainly accelerate or hinder this.

Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porat along with their research partners at the Ross School of Business’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship found that thriving employees are those who are not just satisfied and productive, but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own.

In their research regarding what enables sustainable individual and organizational performance, they found that thriving employees were 32% more committed to their organization and 46% more satisfied with their jobs. Not surprising, these employees were also less likely to miss work.

In order for employees to thrive, Spreitzer and Porat identified two components: vitality and learning. Vitality is the sense of being passionate and excited, which can spark energy in themselves and those around them. Learning is in the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills, such as developing expertise in a certain area.

It’s the combination of the two components that is required because learning without vitality can result in burnout, and vitality without learning leads to work that is too repetitious and boring. It is also the partnership of the employer and employee to be actively involved.

To encourage vitality, employers should provide an environment that generates a sense that what employees do for them really makes a difference.

Employees should seek out organizations for whom they can get passionate and excited about as well as put forth the effort to actively participate. Vitality cannot come from outside the individual because it is intrinsic and, although it can be supported by the opportunities inside the organization, it must bubble up from within the individual employee.

With regard to learning, employers need to provide opportunities for employees to obtain new knowledge and skills. And employees need to maintain a growth mindset and choose to continue learning while on the job. No amount of teaching will lead to learning without a willing student who is ready and interested in gaining new knowledge.

Spreitzer and Porat further identified four mechanisms that can help create the condition for thriving employees. They are:

  • Providing decision-making discretion
  • Sharing information
  • Minimizing incivility
  • Offering performance feedback

This makes sense as these mechanisms are necessary for employees to feel empowered, knowledgeable, comfortable and self-aware.

And organizations can either encourage or discourage these mechanisms. To encourage them, they need to be more than HR policies or corporate value statements because it is a part of the corporate culture. To fully embrace these four mechanisms means everyone in the organization needs to adhere to them and they need to be reinforced each and every day.

Thriving employees need to feel that their contribution is making a positive difference, they are able to directly influence the results, they are free to speak openly even when they disagree with the status quo, and they are able to continue learning and growing in their career

A thriving workplace is one where both organizations and their employees take responsibility. This partnership is mutually beneficial. Organizations can attract and retain top talent while increasing profitability, and employees are more satisfied, encouraged, and inclined to be optimally productive. A thriving workplace is a win-win.

5 Steps to Behavioral Change

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Whether you are trying to lose weight, run a marathon, secure a new job, or change your behavior to be more effective in the workplace, you are the primary driver of your success. As Henry Ford put it: If you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right!

I believe reaching any goal takes motivation, perseverance and discipline. A growth mindset is paramount to bring about goals that include behavioral change. And behavioral change requires the courage to step out of one’s comfort zone and deliberately practice new behaviors.

As a leadership coach, my passion is to help people reach their individual goals to become more effective leaders. These goals are often related to soft skills that require behavioral change.

Soft skills are the personal attributes that enable you to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. They show up in areas such as self-awareness, interpersonal communication, empathy, managing conflict, executive presence, and generally being a good team player. Your aptitude in each of these may not have hindered your ability to secure a job, but they may be holding you back from moving forward in your career.

Often you may be unaware that these soft skills are even a problem—until you see them continually surface in your annual reviews, 360-feedback or comments from your supervisor. When they do, and when you are ready to deal with them to move your career forward, it is worth creating goals and taking the necessary steps to achieve them.

The first step is to focus your attention on the specific goal you are looking to achieve and make it SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time bound). Once you have this, I recommend these 5 Steps:

  1. Write it down. Unless you commit your SMART goal to paper or at least digital display and keep it in front of you, it will not remain top of mind. Find a way to remind yourself of your goal at the beginning of each day and you are more likely to make progress.
  2. Develop a plan. Decide how you will go about reaching your new behavior by determining the specific steps to take along with a timeline. Record what resources and encouragement you will need to assist you along the way. And monitor your progress.
  3. Enlist support. It is much easier to reach your goal with the assistance of others who can provide feedback regarding the way you show up with your new behavior. This could be your immediate supervisor, workplace colleague, or a coach. Regardless who you choose, be deliberate and actively seek their comments—good or bad.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. Nothing will enable you to master your desired behavior more than deliberate practice. And forget the myth of 21 days to form a new habit. In the case of behavioral change, establishing new behavior is likely to take anywhere from 8 weeks to 8 months. Don’t let this discourage you, and accept that this is a process, which requires adequate time to really become habitual.
  5. Continue learning. Demonstrating a true change in behavior requires that you continually make adjustments to what works and in what situations. Rarely will a specific behavioral skill work in every situation. Evaluate your performance regularly and make adjustments to reinforce or modify what you’re doing.

Recognize that as human beings, we are all perfectly imperfect. We are continually evolving and therefore shouldn’t expect to really ever be completed. This is part of lifelong learning and embraced that we are still growing—as opposed to dying.

With regard to behavioral change, you are the only one who can enable or impede your progress. Your beliefs, emotions and mindsets are your biggest assets or limitations. Once these are in your favor, create a SMART goal, follow the 5 Steps above, and you will attain your new behavior to move you forward in your career.

The Value of Thought Diversity

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As much as we have learned the importance of diversity in the workplace, it is often focused on gender, race and ethnicity. Thought diversity is more subtle, but just as important. That’s because our thoughts are guided by where we focus our attention and, all too often, we seek the comfort of confirmation rather than the anxiety of challenging our assumptions.

This deficit in thought diversity is limiting our overall understanding, undermining the ability to truly connect and collaborate with others, and detrimental to the creativity necessary for solving the most challenging problems.

Think about how:

  • Our family, friends and acquaintances are made up primarily of people who share and reaffirm our individual identity of who we are and what we believe.
  • Our neighbors likely share a socio-economic demographic that continually reinforces our perspectives directly based on our geographic point of reference.
  • Our individual news feeds are chosen to maintain rather than challenge our perspectives on the economy, politics, entertainment, environment, and other subjects.
  • Our social networks are filled with those who align with our unique views and opinions, enabling more “follows,” “likes,” and “shares.”
  • Our entire digital footprint is making it so advertisers can provide us with information tailored to what they believe we want and limit our attention from going elsewhere.
  • Our workplace, though there may be some diversity in race, gender, ethnicity, age, ability and/or sexuality, it may not be a place that encourages diversity of thoughts, opinions or perspectives.

Too often a hiring manager and HR partner—after first singling out candidates who possess the necessary skills and experience—look for the one who fits the corporate culture, which may unfortunately lead to groupthink. This cultural fit may actually undermine the ability to bring about diversity of thought.

In his book The Difference, University of Michigan economist Scott Page describes a unique way to hire people to maximize diversity of thought within an organization. In the study, three candidates interviewed for two vacant positions on a research team. All candidates were asked the same 10 questions: Jeff correctly answered 7 of 10, Rose 6 of 10, and Spencer 5 of 10.

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Many organizations would hire Jeff and Rose because these two candidates garnered the highest cumulative score. Another reason is that HR managers spend a lot of time and money-making sure that their people all think the same. They value “consistency and efficiency over individual flair.”

If the hiring manager and HR manager, however, spend time examining which questions each candidate answered correctly, they will notice that Spencer, the lowest overall scorer, correctly answered every question that Jeff, the highest scorer, incorrectly answered. As such, Spencer presumably brings a different way of thinking to the organization—and quite possibly more value.

Thought diversity at work is vital as it enables out-of-the-box thinking to bring about creative solutions to 21st century challenges.

Some companies use the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, four-color personality test or other 4-grid assessment in order to identify and differentiate employees as this helps each person to understand the benefits and drawbacks in each type. The larger lesson is that there is wisdom when all four types or colors are represented as it can help bring about diversity in thought to arrive at the best solutions.

Diversity of thought can come in many forms, and it needs to be encouraged in the way organizations both hire and manage their workers.

Thought diversity places the focus on an individual’s mind, which is influenced by his or her experiences, culture, background and personality. It is not rooted in opinions, but in thought processes and problem solving abilities.

The primary benefits of thought diversity include:

  • Reduction in groupthink because different perspectives encourage everyone to bring their own perspective based on their unique background and personality.
  • Creative tension that enables fresh ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, which can sometimes be messy, but ultimately leads to new insights.
  • Increased employee engagement as everyone feels that their opinion and ideas matter, and that they have value in reaching the best solutions.
  • Attracting Millennials who are looking to join those organizations that foster an inclusive culture where they can be most successful.

Thought diversity should be included in every organization’s diversity initiatives. It makes sense when choosing who to hire and it makes sense in how to manage employees. When people are actively encouraged to present different perspectives and ideas to challenge assumptions and the status quo, that’s when you’ll see new insights, innovation, collaboration, and the very best of teamwork.