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