How to Manage Passive-Aggressive Employees

Identify, understand and deal with behavior to create an environment that works for all personalities
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The Well-Timed White Knight: On the lookout for the right time to step in and save the day, this person waits until the boss is unavailable or out of the office to create a crisis. He then steps in and goes over the boss’ head, seeking out his manager in order to gain approval for necessary actions. This person can be counted on to do what needs to be done in order to take care of the self-created crisis while the boss is out, giving the appearance that the boss is partially unreliable and this person is a hero.

The Prolonged Performer: No task 
is too big or small, and ultimate completion of a task is not an issue; however, the time it takes to finish a job becomes the real problem. This person is willing and able to take 
on an assignment but takes so long 
to complete it that the task-giver is sorry he ever asked in the first place.

The Nodding Nuisance: Though miniature problems may arise and comments may be made in private, this person operates in a state of agreeable dormancy so as to avoid making waves or expressing disdain in public. The boss may complain to others about a perceived bad attitude, but because the employee’s public persona indicates that he is easygoing and compliant, co-workers assume this employee is a quiet contributor. The boss is left looking like the bad guy for drumming up something out of seemingly nothing.

Addressing the Behaviors

Once you know who you are dealing with, identify potential passive-aggressive behavior to figure out a counter strategy that will prevent the actions from having a negative effect. For instance, in dealing with “The Intentional Inefficient,” you might portray an assignment from the start as being very simple. This way, if the person completes the task successfully it was as expected, but making subtle mistakes or intentionally working in an inefficient manner would only seem like the person could not handle an easy assignment. This strategy also often works with “The Prolonged Performer.”

In the case of dealing with “The Perplexed Pretender,” it’s usually a good idea to give smaller chunks of instruction and require written (via email) summarization of expectations. This way, there is direct two-way communication that instructions were clear, and the chunked approach to giving instruction provides little room for complaining about the level of supposed difficulty. It also gives a manager written documentation of a potential deficiency in either the ability or willingness of an employee to do the job. With “The Well-Timed White Knight,” giving broad or general authority, in advance, for the individual to take care of emergencies or seek approval from another superior in your absence can block the person’s plans to pounce when you’re away. It could also transfer ownership to the individual, thus encouraging more appropriate behavior.

Individuals who exhibit passive-
aggressive behavior are not simply bad eggs with nothing better to do than make other people look bad. Often, there is a root cause, and most likely there is an emotional catalyst igniting passive-aggressive actions. Without taking time to identify what this may be and how it can be fixed, all the preemptive strategies in the world won’t work for long.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognize and manage feelings in one’s self and in others, so they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to manage, motivate, lead and work together smoothly toward common goals and organizational success. By first performing a self-assessment of your own emotional intelligence, either informally or formally through such metrics as the ECI (Emotional Competence Inventory), and then looking outward to recognize feelings someone else may have and be externalizing through passive-aggression, you can often repair what is broken and end the passive-aggressive behaviors that are causing a negative work atmosphere.

Though often silently pervasive, employees who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior can cause real problems in the workplace. While not always easy to identify, and often doubly difficult to curb, dealing with such passive negative expressions is possible through a deliberate and pre-thought out approach, non-aggressive counter actions, conscious and prudent resolve—and with a little patience.

About the author:

Nicholas Phillips is CEO and president of HR Department Unlimited. HRDU provides superior human resource and training consultation for employers.

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