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.”

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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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8 Comments

  • 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.

    puttenham
    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,
    Kate

  • @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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