Dealing with passive aggressive team members

Do you identify that you have ‘passive aggressive’ team members on your project team?

Passive Aggressive behaviour

First of all lets chat about passive aggressive behaviour.  Whilst this might be hard to hear, it’s not about you.  This may feel unsettling and untrue for you when you are the one that is in the firing line of the behaviour.  Know that a passive aggressive response is the other persons patterned way of behaving.  It is something they have mastered and it is more than likely unconscious behaviour to them.   They may not even realise they are doing it.  I am not saying that that makes it okay, all that I am asking is that you recognise that this is likely to be the case for them.

From my own personal experience I didn’t recognise that it was my standard pattern of behaviour until I started doing personal work on myself.  Then, and only then, did I notice what was occurring, by starting to see what was ‘really’ happening for me inside, when my natural (and patterned) response was passive aggression. I had someone that I trusted able to highlight for me when they saw that behaviour.  It was a way for me to then check in in that moment as to what was really happening for me.

What’s behind the behaviour?

In investigating my behaviour what I have found is that I felt that I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the other person.  If the other person asked me what I wanted, I couldn’t honestly tell them.  It felt as though for so long I wasn’t allowed or able to ask for what I wanted that I had shut down my ability to even consider what I wanted.  To then be able to express it, even when I found it, wasn’t easy.

This doesn’t make it easy on a team where, in a perfect world, you would have everyone working together, collaborating to achieve the outcome.

If you’re team member has an issue, but they aren’t able to express to you what that is, what can you do to help them find what the issue is?

Here is my suggested approach:

1. Stop and refrain from being aggressive or passive aggressive in return. Notice how you are feeling in that moment and allow yourself to sit with that.

2. Express your truth.  If you notice that the person hasn’t answered your question, express that.  Use the non threatening “It didn’t work for me, or it doesn’t work for me, when… you don’t answer the question (for example).”  By responding this way you are laying no blame.  You are expressing your truth.

3. Own what is happening for you and then express it.  “I need… the team to deliver x, y and z and you are an important part of making that happen.”  “What do you need from me to progress your tasks?  or  “What help do you need from the team in order to do what is needed for us to move forward?”

4.  Something that I would also do in this situation is take the discussion offline and have a one on one chat with the person.  Don’t call them out in the middle of the meeting with everyone there.  In that moment their ‘passive’ aggression is likely to turn into full blown aggression.  This won’t help either you, or the team.

Taking the emotion out of the situation

The person that you are perceiving as responding in a passive aggressive manner has been triggered emotionally by something that has been said.  Notice that I said ’emotionally’.  In order to move forward you need to take the emotion out of the situation, have the person come back to a calm and centred place.  It would be like saying that their passive aggressive response is like the flame that occurs when you flick the cigarette lighter.  What you are aiming for is to put out the flame, before it grows any bigger.

By responding to them in a non emotional way yourself you are not fuelling a way or conflict between you.

Easier said than done you say, I know believe me, and I have also witnessed first hand the shift that occurs when I respond in a non emotional way and are then able to approach the situation from a calm and centred place myself.

Try it.  I’d love to hear your feedback on whether it works for you or not.  I am also interested in hearing if you think it won’t work for you and why.