The passive-aggressive manager

Passive aggressiveness

Recognising passive-aggressive behaviour

“I thought you knew.”, “Fine. Whatever.”, “If you really want to.” These are the most common passive-aggressive phrases you can hear at work when talking with your colleagues.  There is often a very fine line between being funny and hurting other people’s feelings. We may all laugh at a carefully-crafted passive-aggressive meme posted on social media.  But when it goes beyond humour, passive-aggressiveness can be very damaging for the people around us and even for ourselves.

Passive-aggressive behaviour has become more common in the workplace in recent years as more companies focus heavily on intelligence over emotional intelligence. Usually, it appears in the form of avoiding any direct confrontation or deliberately masking how a person displays covert feelings of anger, anxiety, or perceived threat.

“70% of the variance in employee engagement is tied to the managers’ skills and behaviours (Gallup)”.

Gallup’s recent study has identified it as one of the biggest challenges that managers face when managing their teams. A passive-aggressive manager can negatively impact team-engagement, productivity and therefore lead to an increase in employee turnover. Another study showed the tremendous influence a manager can have on their teams: 70% of the variance in employee engagement is tied to the managers’ skills and behaviours. Therefore, it is important to quickly identify unhealthy management behaviours that can negatively influence the team and indirectly impact overall company performance.

At XTENSOS, during our Executive Coaching and Mentoring sessions, we have worked with Managers, Directors, VPs and C-level executives who have sometimes encountered passive-aggressive behaviours being displayed by stressed-out managers towards employees or even towards customers.

For team-members, the expectations of a passive-aggressive manager can be very ambiguous. Sometimes clarity is only provided after a project has already begun and there are very few chances left to correct the tasks or learn from any mistakes made. When this happens, motivation and job satisfaction can decrease significantly, leaving the team members with a deep sense of confusion and frustration.

As a team-member – how should you deal with a passive-aggressive manager?

There is no straightforward solution that will give instant results when dealing with passive-aggressive managers. With managers who give you little or no context for implementing projects or tasks, you might try asking additional clarifying questions to avoid making assumptions. It will help to always adopt a calm attitude and try to explain why you need this additional information from him or her.

“While you may not be able to control the manager’s behaviour towards you,  you can control your reaction towards their passive-aggressiveness”.

It is a well-known fact that behaviour from one person usually breeds similar behaviour in others. Before you instantly react to passive-aggressive behaviour from your manager, with anger or defensiveness, just remember that these attitudes often mask a real problem. The manager may have an underlying preference to avoid conflict or they may be suffering from, frustration or stress. While you may not be able to control the manager’s behaviour towards you,  you can control your reaction towards their passive-aggressiveness.

It is up to you to decide if you will allow these behaviours to affect you or not. By deciding that you will not let it affect you and by refocusing on this goal whenever you lose your way, you can achieve a point where you will judge these issues more rationally than emotionally. This will help you to better cope with difficult people and reduce the stress associated with dealing with them. If you want to read more about how and why it is so important to develop your own resilience, check out  “The 7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey.

As a company – how should you deal with a passive-aggressive manager?

“It is usually best to manage both the manager’s behaviour and the team member’s resilience in parallel”.

Companies should have a clearly defined set of values and beliefs which govern the types of behaviours that they expect to see their managers display. If a company does not set a standard of how managers will behave then how can they expect the staff members to know what is acceptable? Passive-aggressiveness will hopefully not be one of these acceptable management behaviours.

It is usually best to manage both the manager’s behaviour and the team member’s resilience in parallel. Coaching is often the best solution to reduce or even eliminate passive-aggressive behaviour. It helps team members to develop greater resilience and to learn techniques to prevent or reduce the impact that passive-aggressiveness has on them.  It also helps the manager as an experienced coach will call out this behaviour and will expect the manager to be held to account for it in the future. Managers who refuse to be held accountable for their behaviour will not be successful in the long term as they will never generate followership in their team.

Although passive-aggressive behaviour in a manager may be the result of many years of uncorrected experiences it is important that companies address this issue when it affects the performance of individuals, the wellbeing of employees or reflects badly on the brand.

XTENSOS solutions for handling passive-aggressiveness

Through our Executive Coaching and Mentoring solutions, we often work with both sides, i.e. the passive-aggressive manager and his or her team members. Our qualified coaches are highly experienced at dealing with this issue and we have helped many organisations to move past this destructive behaviour and into a more actively-managed work environment.

To help people develop healthy management and leadership competences and build an engaging work environment, we have also developed comprehensive Management Development and Leadership Development programmes. These programmes are designed to help leaders to learn new innovative best practices, develop their management and leadership competences, and pick-up some useful tools and techniques to help them to actively-manage their global teams and successfully deliver true employee engagement.

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