New leaders that fail to deal with others’ passive-aggressive behavior inevitably fail themselves. This is even more of an issue with the increase in remote work as that makes it easier for those being passive-aggressive to hide. New leaders need to identify the behavior, call out the impact, and move quickly to neutralize the issues.

Passive-aggressive definition

Oxford characterizes passive-aggressive as “indirect resistance to the demands of others and avoidance of direct confrontation.”

These are resistors and they are indirect. They hide. They undermine others in the shadows, behind their backs. Expect them to say one thing to your face and then do something else, expect them to delay instead of just saying no, expect them to find excuses instead of ways to make things work.

In almost any change management situation, there will be champions and contributors, wanting to move things forward. There will be watchers waiting to follow others’ leads. And there will be detractors, resisting change. Some of the detractors will be open. Some will be passive-aggressive.

The general prescription is not to try to turn detractors into contributors, but to move everyone one step – turning the contributors into champions, watchers into contributors, and getting the detractors out of the way.

Identify passive-aggressive behavior

Milestones are a great tool for identifying passive-aggressive behavior. The core of milestone management is agreeing what’s going to get done by whom by when and then tracking it.

People miss milestones. Some will show up, own the miss, and commit to re-focusing their efforts to make up lost ground quickly.

Support them.

Others will explain that they missed their milestone because they were working on something more important.

Any excuse like that should set off warning bells in your brain. Dig in and understand what’s going on – especially why they didn’t come to you earlier to address the impending miss directly. (Remember, one of the characteristics of passive-aggressive behavior is the avoidance of direct confrontation.)

This goes to leash management. Those handling dogs whose behavior is harder to control keep them on shorter leashes. Those handling better-behaved dogs give those dogs more leash. Do the same with those reporting to you, requiring more frequent check-ins from those needing more direction and help, and less frequent check-ins from those more able to run on their own.

As a new leader, you don’t know which dog is which. Thus, start with more frequent check-ins, giving people more and more leash as appropriate. Importantly, this allows you to identify passive-aggressive behavior faster early on.

Call out the impact of passive-aggressive behavior

This is about changing the balance of consequences. Those engaging in passive-aggressive behavior seek to resist without the risk of direct confrontation. Letting things go by not calling out the impact of their behavior positively reinforces that behavior. Calling it out and having the conversation removes that incentive.

Neutralize the issue behind the passive-aggressive behavior

Remember, you’re not trying to turn them from passively-aggressively resisting something to championing it. You’re just trying to get them to stop resisting.

Figure out what they are resisting.

If it’s a single issue or decision, talk to them about it. Listen to their perspective. They may be right to resist. You may need to change your approach to that issue or decision. Doing that will encourage them to provide healthy challenges and ideas in the future, helping you all ratchet up your collective current best thinking.

If the issue is you and they don’t want to follow you, help them find someone else to follow. Perhaps that other leader is within your organization. Perhaps that other leader is in a different organization.

The number one thing experienced leaders regret is not moving fast enough on people. When they finally do move, others ask “What took you so long?” What they’re not saying, but thinking is “We were beginning to think you were stupid.”

Others notice others’ passive-aggressive behavior. They notice how you deal with it or don’t deal with it and change their perception of you as a leader based on that. Follow that to its logical conclusion. Every instance of passive-aggressive behavior you fail to neutralize weakens others’ respect for you as a leader. There’s a break point at which you lose the respect of enough of your team that you become the problem for someone else to neutralize.

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