Dealing with a passive- aggressive team member

Fred habitually denied he’d received information from his team leader. Critical or not. Team meetings were usually uncomfortable because he never voiced an opinion. Unless it was a brief, negative throw-away line. He simply sat, silent and unreceptive.

Attempts to engage him in conversation founded on stony ground. Fred divulged little.

When tasks were shared out at the meeting and he didn’t respond, agreement was assumed; but, he never followed through. And when gently confronted around a deadline, denied any agreement had ever been made: he was a master at expressing total mystification. And blamed his team-leader. So she found herself taking on Fred’s responsibilities, covering for him at the last minute to avoid minor disasters – or worse.

Have you got a staff member like this? Fred is a passive-aggressor and his behavior is very difficult to deal with. His team leader in this case blamed herself and was doing everything she could to be especially friendly to Fred – to no avail. It was not her fault. In fact, Fred was probably chalking it up as a ‘win’ to him.

Wikipedia defines Passive-aggressive behavior as ‘the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, sarcasm, stubbornness, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible’.

I won’t explore the behaviour here; you can do that yourself through any number of reputable sources. I want to talk about how you, as a team leader, can handle that behaviour.

As a team-leader, you probably won’t be able to change Fred’s behaviour. The Fred’s of the workplace usually don’t leave undone the essential responsibilities of their jobs, so there will be little to pin down when it comes to judging their performance. You are probably stuck with him.

So protecting your self is your best option. And, making sure you look after your other staff so they aren’t burdened by Fred’s aggression. It’s probably mostly directed at you, the team-leader.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Make a conscious decision never to respond with anger to anything Fred says or does. Don’t take his behavior personally. Don’t let him ‘win’.
  • Team–meeting decisions and action plans must be framed carefully and decisively. While inspiring most of your staff might work – “Imagine what we could do…”. Fred will be unimpressed. Your requirements need to be framed confidently: “ Specifically, what I need from you is…” and “The reasons are…”. You need facts and figures.
  • Team-meeting decisions need to be made clear, and possibly public, so that Fred cannot claim that he didn’t know, that you didn’t email him. Can action plans be listed in the staff room?
  • Keep all records of your correspondence with Fred. If evidence is ever needed, you will have it.
  • Remember to check what is happening with Fred’s ‘agreed’ commitments, well before the deadline, so that you aren’t caught out.
  • Be unfailingly polite – and fair and determined.
  • In meetings, ask his opinion, and ignore silence. If his response is negative, you might say: “I’m sorry you feel like that”. And then: “What do you think we should do to avoid things like that happening again?” You may not change Fred, but your other staff members will respect you trying.
  • Be nice to yourself.

More ideas?
Leibling, Mike. (2005) How people tick. A guide to difficult people and how to handle them. Kogan Page.

Right words to say when dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour

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