Aggression isn’t very subtle. Anger unleashed or a punch in the face is pretty easy to notice, especially if it’s happening to you.
That’s probably why so many of us prefer to package our unpleasant emotions in an even more maddening form – passive-aggression. It might look like this. You lost the argument with your spouse but arrive late to pick him up at the office. A work colleague challenged you in a meeting, so she never receives your follow-up report. We get to let off some steam without all the drama of a full-blown confrontation.
In legal terms, passive-aggressive behavior offers a form of plausible deniability.
If you employ passive-aggressive behaviors regularly it’s because it usually works and it feels good too. We may as well admit it. Expressing our negative feelings in a subtle or indirect way offers control with an easy way out if needed.
Here are a few common passive-aggressive behaviors.
- Incomplete assignments. Things like, failing to clean your own coffee mug in the company kitchen; finishing the quarterly report without emailing the team; mowing the yard but neglecting to trim.
- The silent treatment. This action (rather non-action) is a perfect ploy if you want to be passive-aggressive. You can be angry without showing it. Others know you’re angry because you’re not speaking to them. How sweet is that?
- Nit-picking. There is nothing better than disguising an insult. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but…” Whatever follows the “but clause” is a thinly veiled insult.
- Showing up late. This one takes many forms. Some passive-aggressors seem to live in their own time galaxy. They are always late. Others conveniently forget the start time. Either way, it’s annoying.
Dealing with passive-aggressors isn’t easy. That’s because their behavior may represent a pattern of thinking that triggers how they respond to conflict. If your brain says, “I need to make my point without looking like the bad guy” then it’s likely a passive-aggressive behavior will emerge.
- Help them reframe your thinking (or your own). Thought patterns can be changed. New habits can be learned. It will take greater self-awareness and a willingness to challenge your thinking.
- Recognize patterns. Most passive-aggressors replicate their behaviors. If you notice the pattern, point it out and tell them how it’s impacting you and others.
- Manage the deniability. Don’t let them simply make excuses. Share your own contributions to the situation. Acknowledge your emotions. Encourage them to share their own.
Passive-aggressors are usually just trying to hide their anger. It’s time to help them own it and find better ways to express it at work. What works for you in managing your own passive-aggressive ways or helping others to manage theirs?
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