passive aggressive behavior at work
This November 18th, the New Hampshire Center for Effective Behavioral Interventions and Supports (NH CEBIS) will host a one-day training on The Angry Smile (see Workshops & Speaking Page for full details).
Do you live or work with someone who:
- Denies or represses feelings of anger
- Withdraws and sulks
- Sends hidden, coded and confusing messages when frustrated
- Procrastinates or carries out tasks inefficiently
- Is quietly manipulative and controlling
- Makes endless promises to change
- Creates a feeling in others of being on an emotional roller coater
This workshop takes an in-depth look at the roots of passive aggression, exploring the behavior at five distinct and (more…)
I’ve got a busy Fall planned, with several training workshops featuring The Angry Smile. Although I’ve got a good number of stories about sugarcoated hostility, excessive civility, defiant compliance, and plain old passive aggressive behavior to share, I am always looking for fresh, new examples. If you have a good example of passive aggressive behavior from a friend, family member, co-worker, parent, child, mother-in-law (those are the best!), boss, on Facebook, via e-mail, on a post-it note, or all of the above, I would love to hear it!
Please e-mail me your story to Signe@SigneWhitson.com or better yet, leave it here via the Comments section. Be sure to leave me your e-mail address; I will be sending a free copy of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. to the best example I receive.
Spread the word. It’ll be great for my collection of real-life examples of passive aggressive behavior and probably worth several laughs for you as well, as you hear about the hilarious lengths some people go to avoid expressing their anger directly and assertively.
PLEASE NOTE: By submitting this story to www.signewhitson.com, you grant Signe Whitson a permanent, royalty-free license to use and/or reproduce this story for any purpose.
>Check out this news clip & video footage about passive aggressive workplace sabotage in several Philadelphia area pizza shops…GROSS!
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Is there someone in your life who consistently makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? Do you know a person who is friendly one day but sulks and withdraws the next? Does a family member or friend consistently procrastinate, postpone, stall, and shut down any emotionally-laden conversations? Are you sometimes that person? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, chances are you may be interacting with a passive aggressive person or showing signs of passive-aggressive behavior yourself.
Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). It involves a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without him recognizing the underlying anger. These ten common passive aggressive phrases can serve as an early-warning system for you, helping you recognize hidden hostility when it is being directed your way:
1. “I’m Not Mad.”
Denying feelings of anger is classic passive aggressive behavior. Rather than being upfront and honest when questioned about his feelings, the passive aggressive person insists, “I’m not mad” even when he is seething on the inside.
Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the passive aggressive person. Since passive aggression is motivated by a person’s belief that expressing anger directly will only make his life worse (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008), the passive aggressive person uses phrases like “Fine” and “Whatever” to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.
3. “I’m Coming!”
4. “I Didn’t Know You Meant Now.”
On a related note, passive aggressive persons are master procrastinators. While all of us like to put off unpleasant tasks from time to time, people with passive aggressive personalities rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.
5. “You Just Want Everything to be Perfect.”
- A student hands in sloppy homework
- A husband prepares a well-done steak for his wife, though he knows she prefers to eat steak rare
- An employee dramatically overspends his budget on an important project
In all of these instances, the passive aggressive person complies with a particular request, but carries it out in an intentionally inefficient way. When confronted, he defends his work, counter-accusing others of having rigid or perfectionist standards.
6. “I Thought You Knew.”
The backhanded compliment is the ultimate socially acceptable means by which the passive aggressive person insults you to your core. If anyone has ever told you, “Don’t worry—you can still get braces even at your age” or “There are a lot of men out there who like plump women,” chances are you know how much “joy” a passive aggressive compliment can bring.
Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of a passive aggressive person who expresses his hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways. If you show that you are offended by biting, passive aggressive sarcasm, the hostile joke teller plays up his role as victim, asking, “Can’t you take a joke?”
The passive aggressive person is a master at maintaining his calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his indirect hostility, blow up in anger. In fact, he takes pleasure out of setting others up to lose their cool and then questioning their “overreactions.”
>In many workplace settings, where adults spend the majority of their waking hours and corporate hierarchies inhibit the direct expression of feelings, a passive aggressive employee is able to sabotage everything from individual deadlines to organizational productivity. It is critical for employers to be able to recognize passive aggressive behaviors in the workplace before these covertly hostile acts can create a negative impact on morale and decrease organizational productivity.
Is there a sabatueur in your office? Keeps your ears tuned for these common, telltale office phrases:
I’ll Get it to You Tomorrow
The passive aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses his underlying anger through temporary compliance. Though he verbally agrees to a task, he behaviorally delays its completion, by procrastinating, “forgetting” important deadlines, “misplacing” files, mis-using sick days, and arriving late.
No One Told Me
For the passive aggressive co-worker, it is more important to express his covert hostility than to maintain an appearance of professional competence. He uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way. Look out for employees whose work is consistently at or below minimum standards, who insists “no one ever told me,” and who personalizes any confrontations from authority, playing up their role as victim.
You Weren’t Here, so I Just Asked Your Boss
Sabotage is the name of the game for the passive aggressive employee. Beware of those who consistently engage in office gossip, incessantly complain about their boss, thwart workplace hierarchies, and withhold important information.
I Just Left a Message Because You Had Left for the Day
Direct, assertive communication is a skill that the passive aggressive employee has never mastered. Sound the passive aggressive alarms whenever you notice an employee who goes to great lengths to avoid face-to-face confrontation, fails to respond to e-mails, leaves sticky notes on office doors just when they know a co-worker has stepped out, and returns phone calls only after the workday is over.
For more information on passive aggressive behavior in the workplace and how to effectively confront this destructive office dynamic, check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.
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>Where should I send the Thank-you note? To the Bravo network? To a Real Housewife?
Last night’s episode of The Real Housewives of NJ delivered yet again, when it comes to this collection of hilariously conniving examples of passive aggressive behavior. Though the hostility is barely hidden and rarely sugarcoated amongst these Housewives, the behind-the-scenes chatter and this e-mail exchange, in particular, are great examples of passive aggression on the set.
My favorite line in this clip comes at the very end: Danielle’s classic, passive aggressive 2-word/phrase answer to Dina’s long e-mail. Let me know what you think in the “Comments” section.
>Those little teaser headlines on Yahoo rarely grab my attention anymore, but yesterday, something about the headline “Worst Words to Stay at Work” made me want to click. Each of the phrases that author Linnda Durre describes as “toxic” are really examples of passive aggressive phrases used in the workplace. Meanwhile, Durre gives some great instructions on how to effectively confront the PA behavior, that is very much aligned with the steps of “Benign Confrontation” that we outline in The Angry Smile. Nice to see we’re on the same page here.
Let me know what you think. Have you heard these words and phrases in your office? Have you uttered them yourself??
The Worst Words to Say at Work
Linnda Durre, Forbes.com, Yahoo! HotJobs
Some words and phrases are often used to buy time, avoid giving answers, and escape commitment. If you use these words and phrases yourself, take a scalpel and cut them out of your thinking, speaking, and writing.
“Try” is a weasel word. “Well, I’ll try,” some people say. It’s a cop-out. They’re just giving you lip service, when they probably have no real intention of doing what you ask. Remember what Yoda says to Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”: “Do or do not–there is no try.” Take Yoda’s advice. Give it your all when you do something. And if it doesn’t work, start over.
Put passion into your work, and give it your best effort, so you can know that you did all you could to make it happen. So if the outcome you were expecting didn’t come to fruition, it’s not because you didn’t do everything you could to make it happen. It just wasn’t the right time for it or it wasn’t meant to be.
This word is a trusted favorite of people who want to dismiss you, diminish what you say, or get rid of you quickly. “Whatever,” they will say as an all-purpose response to your earnest request. It’s an insult and a verbal slap in the face. It’s a way to respond to a person without actually responding. When you say “whatever” after another person has said his or her piece, you have essentially put up a wall between the two of you and halted any progress in communicating. It’s a word to avoid.
“Maybe” and “I don’t know”
People will sometimes avoid making a decision–and hide behind words and phrases like “maybe” and “I don’t know.” There’s a difference between legitimately not knowing something and using words like these as excuses. Sometimes during a confrontation, people will claim not to know something or offer the noncommittal response “maybe,” just to avoid being put on the spot. If that seems to be the case, ask, “When do you think you will know?” or “How can you find out?” Don’t let the person off the hook so easily.
“I’ll get back to you”
When people need to buy time or avoid revealing a project’s status, they will say, “I’ll get back to you,” and they usually never do. If people say they will get back to you, always clarify. Ask them when they will get back to you, and make sure they specify the day and time. If they don’t, then pin them down to a day and time and hold them to it. If they won’t give you a day or time, tell them you’ll call in a day or week and follow up. Make sure you call and get the information you need.
Projects depend on everyone doing his or her part. People who use “if” are usually playing the blame game and betting against themselves. They like to set conditions, rather than assuming a successful outcome. People who rely on conditional responses are fortifying themselves against potential failure. They will say, “If Bob finishes his part, then I can do my part.” They’re laying the groundwork for a “no fault” excuse and for not finishing their work.
There are always alternatives, other routes, and ways to get the job done. Excuse makers usually have the energy of a slug and the spine of a jellyfish. You don’t want them on your team when you’re trying to climb Mt. Everest.
“Yes, but . . .”
This is another excuse. You might give your team members suggestions or solutions, and they come back to you with “Yes, but . . .” as a response. They don’t really want answers, help, or solutions. You need to call the “Yes, but . . .” people out on their avoidance tactic by saying something like “You know, Jackie, every time I offer you a suggestion you say, ‘Yes, but . . . ,’ which makes me think you don’t really want to solve this problem. That’s not going to work. If you want to play the victim, go right ahead, but I’m not going to allow you to keep this up.” After a response like that, you can be assured that the next words you hear will not be “Yes, but . . .”!
“I guess . . .”
This is usually said in a weak, soft-spoken, shoulder-shrugging manner. It’s another attempt to shirk responsibility–a phrase that is muttered only when people half agree with you but want to leave enough leeway to say, “Well, I didn’t really know. . . . I was only guessing.” If you use this phrase, cut it out of your vocabulary.
“We’ll see . . .”
How many times did we hear our parents say this? We knew they were buying time, avoiding a fight or confrontation, or really saying no. It’s better to be decisive and honest by saying, “I need more information. Please present your case or send me the data–both pro and con–so I can make an informed decision.” That way, the interested parties will contribute to an in-depth, well-researched “verdict.”
This column is an excerpt of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace” (McGraw-Hill, 2010), by Linnda Durre, a psychotherapist, business consultant, and columnist. You can follow her on Twitter: @LinndaDurreShow.