Stuckness is the Heart of Change

One of the most trou­bling phe­nom­e­na and stum­bling blocks for lead­ers is respond­ing appro­pri­ate­ly to pas­sive-aggres­sive behavior. 

Pas­sive aggres­sion is very com­mon as a way to bal­ance the for­mal pow­er of a boss with the infor­mal pow­er of employ­ees. Pas­sive-aggres­sive means sim­ply that peo­ple indi­rect­ly leak their neg­a­tive feel­ings through their actions while seem­ing­ly agree­ing or going along. They grum­ble — behind the scenes. They send zingers across the table under­min­ing peers and col­leagues. They seem to be amused by crit­i­cal ini­tia­tives, and by the leader. It’s low-risk, high-con­trol behav­ior that acts to pre­serve the sta­tus quo and pro­tect peo­ple from atten­tion or change or con­nec­tion. It is the oppo­site of active col­lab­o­ra­tion, and it often shows up when change is afoot, such as a team reor­ga­ni­za­tion or a shift in sys­tems, val­ues, or approach­es to the work.

Such behav­ior is prob­lem­at­ic for many rea­sons, not the least of which is that it’s not ful­ly hon­est. Yet it is also under­stand­able. When peo­ple feel they will get into trou­ble for speak­ing their hearts and shar­ing their real neg­a­tive, cyn­i­cal, or skep­ti­cal thoughts and feel­ings, they often adopt this kind of indi­rect approach. Their actions express under­ly­ing feel­ings and resis­tances while appear­ing to go along. It’s the prod­uct of depen­den­cy and lack of lead­er­ship. Pas­sive aggres­sive behav­ior can be part of a per­son­al style, and it can also become the style of a team or in part the style of an entire orga­ni­za­tion­al culture. 

A small exam­ple would be a mem­ber of a team who brings his com­put­er to a staff meet­ing and pro­ceeds to answer emails dur­ing the ses­sion. When con­front­ed (and this is key) he talks about the crit­i­cal nature of the project he’s work­ing on, as if he’s in a dou­ble bind — you want me to come to this meet­ing, and I’m here, but I also need to get this work done — which is (of course) more impor­tant than the meet­ing and more impor­tant than you. It seems rea­son­able on one hand, but it’s not; it’s just infu­ri­at­ing because it involves an implied but not explic­it per­son­al attack. No one else involved in the project has a com­put­er propped up in front of them dur­ing the meet­ing, but he does. When con­front­ed, he reluc­tant­ly clos­es the lid, per­haps with an expla­na­tion, but cer­tain­ly with a sigh or a smirk. This is what was called in the past, “a bad attitude.” 


So what to do about this? Any attempt to “call out” and pro­hib­it such behav­ior in the group, or lat­er pri­vate­ly one-on-one, is like­ly to be seen as one more attempt to intim­i­date, coerce or in some oth­er pushy way gain com­pli­ance. The pas­sive-aggres­sive behav­ior is self-feed­ing and when con­front­ed can lead to ever deep­er states of mis­trust, dis­hon­esty and distance. 

One approach I’ve found help­ful is to assist peo­ple to express the true depth of their dis­sat­is­fac­tions. This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly easy work, and if you can’t stand hear­ing oth­ers’ com­plaints — com­plaints that include you and that you might not feel are legit­i­mate — it may not work for you at all. 

It’s an invest­ment in a per­son or team. If the pas­sive aggres­sive behav­ior is treat­ed as a “bad habit” more than some­thing locked into peo­ple, lis­ten­ing all the way to the bot­tom of the com­plaints can even­tu­al­ly melt the neg­a­tiv­i­ty, but this is not a short-term strat­e­gy. It may take sev­er­al con­ver­sa­tions over some peri­od of time to get below the sur­face. It’s crit­i­cal to get at how stuck, help­less, and with­out choice the per­son or team feels.

When the feel­ings show up they like­ly include all kinds of invec­tive, poi­so­nous per­spec­tives, emo­tion­al dra­ma, and faith­less­ness that change of any kind is pos­si­ble, and, as men­tioned, they may very well include some blame for you. That’s why it’s impor­tant to go right into these stuck places; not to talk peo­ple out of them, but to help them take more respon­si­bil­i­ty for choos­ing what’s next. You must demon­strate your capac­i­ty to be open to their crit­i­cism. It’s like sum­mon­ing the whole of real­i­ty and then giv­ing peo­ple a chance to face it for all of what it is and is not. 

At the point real stuck­ness is on the table, the only mean­ing­ful choice is to deal with it col­lec­tive­ly. If you are stuck in pas­sive aggres­sion, the only way out is active col­lab­o­ra­tion. You can’t con­trol that into oth­ers any­more than you can use con­trol to cre­ate trust. Instead, you have to go to that messy place and stay there, know­ing that there’s no escape. When there’s no escape, peo­ple begin to rein­vent the pat­terns that are in con­trol of them. In oth­er words, in any form of pas­sive aggres­sive behav­ior are two kinds of illu­sion. The first illu­sion is that some­one or some­thing can make the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter. The sec­ond is that some­one or some­thing can’t do any­thing at all. This con­tra­dic­tion is often what hooks the leader emo­tion­al­ly and keeps the dynam­ic going. 

Bet­ter to sit with the per­son or the team and try to find out how bad things real­ly are, how irrepara­bly blocked the cir­cum­stances. Then ask the ques­tion, “So the truth is we’re blocked, we’re stuck. What do we do now — togeth­er?” I’ve always found it amaz­ing how in such infer­tile soil, with a strong dose of lis­ten­ing, a seed of change can begin to grow.

A small exam­ple. A few years ago I was doing a five day train­ing ses­sion for a group of thir­ty super­vi­sors who had been required to attend the train­ing. (The orga­ni­za­tion required all super­vi­sors to attend 40 hours of man­age­ment train­ing every year). On day three, more or less pre­dictably, the group mutinied. “Dan, what you are teach­ing us is all well and good but it does­n’t apply here,” they claimed. 

Why not?” I asked. 

Because we don’t have either the time or resources,” they hollered at me. 

Try­ing not to take crit­i­cism of my per­fect­ly designed class per­son­al­ly, I start­ed by ask­ing them if they want­ed to close the course down and go back to their jobs. “If you are real­ly not get­ting any val­ue out of this, that would be one option,” I sug­gest­ed. Putting the ques­tion on the table in that way was a lit­tle sur­pris­ing to them, I think. 

Look,” some­one said, “we can’t use this stuff because our boss (the head of the orga­ni­za­tion) does­n’t oper­ate the way you’ve described in this course. We don’t do coach­ing. We don’t do facil­i­ta­tion. We don’t do ‘lead­er­ship.’ We just get work done and there’s no time for any­thing else.” As I lis­tened, it was absolute­ly clear that peo­ple were dis­sat­is­fied and unhap­py and stressed. They want­ed to be bet­ter super­vi­sors, but the extreme lack of resources was killing them. 

Strik­ing out more or less blind­ly, I asked, “Okay, so we’re real­ly kind of stuck here, but I have a ques­tion. You say you have no resources at all, but that would­n’t be entire­ly accu­rate. You must have some­thing, if only one anoth­er. What do you have?” 

There was a long silence after that and then some­one said, “Well, we have the mis­sion of the orga­ni­za­tion — that’s our biggest resource.” “And what’s that?” I asked.

At that point some­one stood and recit­ed the orga­ni­za­tion’s com­pli­cat­ed mis­sion state­ment by heart. His words were soft and gen­uine, and they moved peo­ple. I sus­pect many in the room knew the mis­sion that way, and like the speak­er deeply believed in it.

And what else do you have?” I asked.

Well, we have great peo­ple work­ing for and with us,” anoth­er class par­tic­i­pant said.

The group went on in this vein, nam­ing a few more tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble resources over the next few minutes. 

What do you think?” I final­ly asked, “Can we fin­ish this course, if we don’t pre­tend that you’ve got a lot of time or sup­port? Can you take in this mate­r­i­al just to see what parts do apply to you and that you want to use?”

The group nod­ded its assent. “Then let’s not do this class in a pho­ny way any­more. Let’s agree you don’t have much but your own ener­gy and pos­i­tive inten­tions and your desire to get bet­ter as man­agers. Let’s not kid each oth­er about that, and be sure to bring up the ques­tions of time as we go.”

The group had mutinied, and I’m so glad they did, for oth­er­wise the pas­sive-aggres­sive behav­ior like­ly would have over­turned any pos­si­bil­i­ty for learn­ing. They would have stood around com­plain­ing at the breaks but noth­ing would have hap­pened. I think it turned out to be one of the bet­ter ses­sions I’ve done.


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  • puttenham wrote:

    Stuck­ness. If the intent of your post­ing was to pro­voke thought, you suc­ceed­ed with me.
    Pro­voked thought: if lead­er­ship expects fol­low­ers to embrace change for the wel­fare and sus­tain­abli­ty of the orga­ni­za­tion, then a., the con­cept that the orga­ni­za­tion is con­tin­u­osly evolv­ing and and b.,in order to do be successful,it needs its fol­low­ers to evolve with it, should be embed­ded in the mis­sion state­ment. Peo­ple need to know what is real­ly expect­ed. Left to their own devices they might be evolvers, solutionists,improvers,passive-aggresive, yes-men, yes-women, naysay­ers, min­i­mal­ists, etc. No per­son or orga­ni­za­tion is the same any two days in a row. These are not orig­i­nal thoughts as I have seen the first one done in Europe.
    Home­work assign­ment: Google nim­bilic­i­ty and see what turns up.

    indus­tri­al sales and marketing

  • Dan, I enjoyed the arti­cle. It is a top­ic we do not often dis­cuss, and you pre­sent­ed some very help­ful ideas. Hav­ing said that, I want to com­ment on your choice of images. They are a beau­ti­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of your thoughts. When I came across the black and white pic­ture, I thought, “OK, this is nice.” When I came across the col­or­ful image, I thought, “wow, bril­liant.” Thanks for both visu­al and intel­lec­tu­al engagement.

  • @puttenham Thanks for drop­ping by! I agree that orga­ni­za­tions have often left open the ques­tion of what is being promised. The larg­er issue of being “nim­ble” is too often expect­ed with­out actu­al clarity.

    @Lyn Grat­i­tude to you for your appre­ci­a­tion of the images. Some­times they relate to a post, some­times they leave open that pos­si­bil­i­ty (as if they are a mir­ror), and some­times there’s no con­nec­tion at all! Most often they are just what’s at hand from my hob­by. I love it that you noticed the images here and were moved to com­ment. Thank you so much!

  • Arabella wrote:

    I am always impressed by both the uni­ver­sal­i­ty and the con­crete speci­fici­ty of your sto­ries and lessons, Dan. Thank you.

  • You are wel­come, Ara­bel­la. I appre­ci­ate your com­ment very much.

  • Hi Dan,

    I love your hon­esty, direct­ness and pen­chant for truth-telling, Dan. Very refreshing.

    Pas­sive-aggres­sive is, for me, a man­i­fes­ta­tion of an under­ly­ing fear, and often rears its ugly head when some (per­ceived threat­en­ing) change is the order of the day. Yes, it is under­stand­able and even expect­ed under cer­tain circumstances.

    …One approach I’ve found help­ful is to assist peo­ple to express the true depth of their dis­sat­is­fac­tions…” and, “…It’s crit­i­cal to get at how stuck, help­less, and with­out choice the per­son or team feels…” (Dan) Yes, and more­so, their fear. I feel and believe if we were more open to “things fear­ful” in the work­place (and at home and in rela­tion­ship) and called it what it was and worked with it, we’d be a lot bet­ter off, at lead more honest.

    In addi­tion to lis­ten­ing, I think it’s impor­tant to allow them to do as you did — vent, bitch, whine, moan and all that and let them know they are not “bad” or “wrong” for doing so. Dis­in­fect­ing by bring­ing their truth to the light of day and then explor­ing what’s next. This also builds “com­mon ground” that we’re all in this together…sewing the seeds of col­lab­o­ra­tion (rather than resis­tance), if guid­ed skill­ful­ly to do so (as you do so well).

    I can actu­al­ly feel the col­lec­tive ener­gy shift when you asked them “What do you have?” “What do you think?”

    This process demands humil­i­ty on the part of the facil­i­ta­tor, being OK with “not know­ing,” allow­ing “them” to dri­ve. Not only was it one of the bet­ter ses­sion you did, but I’m guess­ing one of the bet­ter ses­sions they did as well. 

    Good stuff!

  • Dear Dan,

    You have clear­ly point­ed out that with a long term strat­e­gy, you can draw peo­ple out of pas­sive aggression. 

    I think you can make great inroads through this engagement. 

    I do believe that some peo­ple will hold onto the pas­sive aggres­sive­ness if their issues run far and deep into their per­son­al lives.

    So we need to set our sights real­is­ti­cal­ly that we may not be able to change at work what peo­ple don’t want to change in their lives.

    Just think­ing …

    Great post and thought provoking !
    Regards and thanks,

  • @Peter — Peter, wow, I love this empha­sis on fear and help­ing peo­ple express it, which is often very sen­si­tive and lies beneath the var­i­ous expres­sions of anger that I asso­ciate with indi­rect aggres­sion. And you’ve also point­ed out what I think is absolute­ly crit­i­cal, which is to bal­ance respon­si­bil­i­ty between the leader hon­est­ly shar­ing in the prob­lems of the per­son or team while also turn­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ty back for their own agency. Peo­ple must decide, in my view, to rise togeth­er, and when they do, help­ing each oth­er, and see­ing the answers in col­lec­tive action, the heav­i­est of the clouds can begin to lift. Thank you so much for your thought­ful com­ment. It’s great that you are here to share your wisdom.

    @Kate Dit­to, Kate — it’s always won­der­ful to have your voice here! I’m total­ly with you that for some the issues can run far and deep, and orga­ni­za­tion­al lead­ers are not ther­a­pists or heal­ers (although some do heal nat­u­ral­ly through their pres­ence). There cer­tain­ly can be team mem­bers who “buy-out” and con­tin­ue to overuse their pow­er as vic­tims to con­trol, or attempt to con­trol a team. And for them, the work is going to be much deep­er. When I’ve worked with such folks per­son­al­ly, or seen oth­ers work with them effec­tive­ly, the approach bal­ances set­ting lim­its on unpro­duc­tive behav­iors, com­mu­ni­cat­ing impacts of old behav­ior and offer­ing sup­port to take respon­si­bil­i­ty and try new approach­es. Some­times a sen­si­tive leader can work behind the scenes to ful­fill that role or help some­one get to the right resources through an Employ­ee Assis­tance Pro­gram. Oth­er times, I’m afraid, the per­son becomes a self-induced casu­al­ty, no doubt repli­cat­ing a trag­ic life or work pat­tern. The most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge I’ve seen orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly is when a leader him/herself is a pas­sive-agres­sive play­er, mod­el­ing the wrong stuff and block­ing mean­ing­ful change for self and for the team. You’d think such foks would just be fired, but some­times they are not for any num­ber of rea­sons, and the result­ing chaos and low morale then become one of the most destruc­tive virus­es out there. In your own great post about pas­sive-aggres­sive behav­ior, you offer excep­tion­al guid­ance. Per­haps a com­ple­men­tary approach is in order!

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