How Do I Deal With Passive Aggressive Behavior on My Team?

In my previous post, I shared my concern that many team leaders are permitting or even participating in passive aggressive behavior that's destroying team effectiveness. 

This kind of behavior is extremely destructive because it drives conflict underground where it can’t fuel progress. It’s also a sign that the team leader hasn’t made the difficult decision to act like a leader.

If you have been permitting passive aggressive behavior to happen right under your nose, try these quick tips:

1.  Set the Tone

  • At the start of a meeting, say “I’m concerned that we aren’t using our meetings effectively to air all of our opinions.” Or “I want everyone to add value IN the meeting, not after it.”
  • When a contentious issue comes up, say “This is a sensitive discussion and it’s one we need to have out in the open.” “I would ask everyone to weigh in on this.” “How are we going to approach this discussion productively?”

2. Make Room for Dissent

  • Before bringing a discussion to a close, ask “What are we not talking about?” “If someone was to criticize this idea, what might they say?”
  • Before making a decision, ask “Are we ready to make this decision?” “What could we consider that would improve the quality of this decision?” “What might re-open this decision if we make it?”
  • When someone introduces a differing point of view, spend some time on it. “That is a really different way of looking at this issue, what can we gain from that perspective?” “If we assume Mary’s point is true, what would be the implications?”

3. Call Out Passive Aggressive Behaviors

  • When body language is negative, ask “I’m noticing that you’re pushing away from the table, how are you reacting to this discussion?” “I just saw three people roll their eyes, tell me what’s up?”
  • When humor is used to shut things down; call it.  “We’ve enjoyed a laugh, now let’s discuss what Bob was trying to tell us.” “I get the sense we’re using humor to avoid a serious discussion, what is making this conversation difficult?”

4. Shut Down Back Channels

  • When a team member comes to complain outside the meeting, redirect them. “I’m concerned that I didn’t hear this point of view in the meeting, what are you hoping to accomplish raising it now?” “Tell me about your decision not to raise this in the team meeting.”
  • When someone tries to re-open a decision. “What new information do we have that would lead us to re-open this decision?” “We already knew that when we made the decision.” “This decision has already been made; do you believe we need to take it back to the team?”

There are so many simple things to say to redirect passive aggressive behavior. The general principle is to get legitimate conflict happening around the table and to stop unproductive conflict from finding a home. 

Now go have some good old fashioned direct, open, productive conflict.