Handling Passive Aggressive Employees

What we label “passive aggressive” behavior in the work place is always a response to a perceived lack of safety or a lack of ability to engage more constructively.

For example, one client owned a chiropractic clinic and had to fire an assistant for her behavior. The owner went on vacation, and a brand-new office manager was struggling. This assistant passively watched this office manager making mistake after mistake — mistakes that were unsurprising with someone brand new to a role, and their boss gone — and the assistant said nothing. When confronted, she shrugged, “I didnt think it was my place to say anything.”

That reflects a lack of team spirit, clearly, and an unwillingness to speak up. However it’s the boss’ job to find good people and build a sense of teamwork. Its also the boss’ job to let someone go when they aren’t working out.

I have other examples, yet they share a common denominator — the employee is either unable, or unwilling, to be constructive.

“Unable” means a person who really never shows courage under any circumstances to constructively confront negative behavior or speak up to defend the firms values. This person may be in the wrong role. Sometimes they can be coached to learn new behaviors. When that happens, they can blossom into star players.

“Unwilling” means a person who can sometimes constructively confront a problem — they are just choosing not to. This typically is caused by two things — either a desire to sabotage someone, or a fear that its unsafe here-and-now to speak up.

For the “unwilling” the boss has to first look at his own behavior. How am I shutting down the free flow of information? In what way am I contributing to a sense of a lack of safety? This self-examination is almost always best done with outside help of some kind (a coach, spouse, consultant, or trusted colleague).

Once the boss is clearly making it safe to speak up, the next step is to gently and constructively confront that passive-aggressive employee. Make it clear that, while they are safe, their prior behavior is unacceptable, and you and the firm need them to speak up constructively and proactively.  (This has been covered several times here on Tom on Leadership.)

In sum, the ball is always in the boss court:

  1. Build a positive culture of teamwork where people want to help each other
  2. Build a candid culture of constructive conflict and confrontation where people are always safe speaking up
  3. Gently confront people who arent willing to support the culture — who insist on being passive aggressive — and either work with them to upgrade their behavior, or “counsel them out” of the organization — even firing them if needed
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