Let’s face it, nobody likes conflict. While it may momentarily get our juices flowing, most of us walk away very distressed when we’re in a conflict at work. It keeps going around and around in our heads as we try to process all the various things we might have said. Experts suggest that there is a conflict every twenty minutes in the workplace. Initially, that may sound ridiculous, as we don’t always see conflicts going on, but they are going on. So, how do they get expressed? What’s happening to the frustration, annoyance, bitterness, even fury that we sometimes feel at work?
Let’s step back for a moment and refresh ourselves on the physiological things we experience when a conflict arises. As the information is flowing up our brain stem, our limbic system (emotional center) is reacting to the information. The amygdala registers the conflict and responds with either a fight, flight or freeze instruction to the brain. The goal of the amygdala is to keep our equilibrium and the conflict has alerted that response center to a problem. Clearly, all of this happens in seconds.
If we have the fight, or aggressive, response we engage in the conflict believing that we can win. The idea is to go on the attack with “you” statements, gross generalizations, temper outbursts and forceful body language. The attacker may interrupt, slam things around, essentially attempting to scare off the opponent. Usually this is a conflict response learned early in life when having tantrums worked to persuade someone to give us what we wanted. Trouble is, this behavior will not work in today’s workplace.
So, instead, our amygdala may encourage a passive response, initially accommodating the other person’s needs at our own expense. Here we run away, give in or deny that there is even a conflict going on. “What conflict?” might be our answer to someone who questions what just happened. Because the passive response requires us to stuff it, we build up a victim mentality, often asking, “Why does this always happen to me?” Our goal is to disappear so the other person won’t notice that we are even here, and therefore won’t engage in the conflict.
So what is passive-aggressive behavior in a conflict? Passive-aggressive behavior is when we don’t engage in the conflict directly, but we are aggressively engaged behind the scenes as a defensive strategy. It might include such behaviors as insulting someone with a joke or sarcastic remark, “accidentally” being late for an important meeting, being unreasonably stubborn, making promises with no intention of follow through, not responding to emails or voicemails, missing deadlines and feigning ignorance, and holding the meeting-after-the-meeting where private discussions more honestly reflect what people are feeling. Some spread rumors about others, launching vitriolic attacks on an individual by sharing with those in authority their off-hand assessment of the person. “Yeah, I’m not sure I would trust Fred; he doesn’t keep confidences you know,” a sentence vague enough to not require specifics and yet ruinous to Fred’s image and reputation in the organization. The passive-aggressives, in an attempt to feel self-sufficient (Pretzer & Beck, 1996) tries to keep as many options open as possible in order to not feel restricted or controlled by a conflict situation. If pinned down, they will vaguely state what the person wants to hear, only to take it back gradually in their actions. Their goal is to delay decisions with the hope that something will happen to decide in their favor. In the process, they lie rather than be honest about their true feelings.
Most of us don’t even respond when we hear the passive-aggressive approach being used, because it’s sneaky and under-handed – the proverbial “snake in the grass” technique. Rather than work on the problem, they vacillate between submissiveness and deliberate rebellion. They won’t offer an opponent an opportunity to engage or respond, or even apologize. The passive-aggressive waits to launch into a subversive attack when the opponent isn’t around or looking. They might engage in an interesting story, and then use the famous double-entendre to zero in on the attack. Years ago I experienced this when a woman was talking to me about the travel I was doing and then suddenly ended with, “It’s a wonder your kids know who their mom is.” Zing! Pow! Zap!
What is the cost of passive-aggressive behavior?
What is the cost of PA behavior in the workplace? How much time is wasted in talking behind others’ backs (triangling), putting people in the deep-freeze, or being less than open, honest and direct? Recently an organization was attempting to explore its future staffing and structural needs in alignment with a new strategic plan. Over and over the leadership group digressed from the challenge, by bringing up various situations from the past that still remained active in the group’s collective memory. Bottom line: trust had been breached several years before, igniting a huge conflict that was never discussed or resolved at the time. Now, as the organization needs to move forward, it’s stuck. The time invested in getting unstuck will fundamentally be a failure cost originated in the passive-aggressive response to the first conflict.
It’s time to make a move on the passive-aggressive impact on our organizations. It’s time to look for patterns of PA – not just isolated incidents – and bring them into the open. But how to do it? Passive-aggressive behavior is not easy to address. I encourage you to download our Strategies to Overcome Passive-Aggressive Behaviors in the Workplace tip sheet and start to address some of the underlying passive-aggressive conflicts within your organization: