Working with Passive Aggressive Behavior When Developing Trusting Relationships

Over the last 40 plus years of my professional career many times I have heard people refer to others as being passive aggressive. Most of the time these people were describing the behavior of another person with whom there was some difficulty in the relationship or even some conflict. Whether or not the individual in question was actually exhibiting this behavior may or may not have been the case. However, when this behavior is demonstrated in a group or organization it can have significant impact on the development of trust within the group, an organization, or the relationships.

When we refer to someone as being passive aggressive we need to be clear about what that behavior is and its impact on the group or relationship. According to Dr. Alan A. Cavailoa and Dr. Neil J. Lavender in their book Toxic Coworkers, passive aggressive behavior is described as a person expressing his or her anger about something in a passive manner. The individual is actually behaving the opposite of how you might expect someone who is angry to behavior. Instead of expressing the anger directly, the person does something like show up late for an appointment or fails to get a report in on time, even though there was adequate time to complete the report. It is not the lateness of the arrival or the lateness of the report that is the issue. Instead, it is the fact that the individual demonstrated this behavior because he or she was angry about something and could not express that anger more appropriately.

The passive aggressive person is very apprehensive about dealing openly and directly with her or his resentments. This apprehension is the result of fear that the individual will be rejected or chastised by a person in authority. According to the authors, the passive aggressive individual usually exhibits at least three of the following behaviors:

  1. Irritable effectivity- high strung, quick-tempered, and moody;
  2. Behavioral contrariness- fault finding, sulkiness, and finds gratification in undermining others;
  3. Discontented self-image- feels misunderstood, unappreciated, and demeaned by others and disgruntled about life;
  4. Deficient regulatory controls- fleeting thoughts and emotions are impulsively expressed;
  5. Interpersonal ambivalence- conflicting and changing roles are assumed in social relationships.

As you can imagine, relating to someone exhibiting these kinds of behaviors would be difficult enough. But when a teammate or work group member, someone you must depend on to achieve a goal, exhibits these behaviors it becomes impossible to have the trust needed to be successful with the group’s efforts. The very foundation of a trusting relationship is not possible with the passive aggressive individual.

So how do you know when you are dealing with a passive aggressive person? Trust your own internal clues. When your own anger and frustration in dealing with this person becomes the focus of the relationship, you can almost bet you are working with a passive aggressive person.

When dealing with the passive aggressive individual, either as a co-worker or as a subordinate, the main key is not get caught up into the person’s problems with authority. Don’t become responsible for the person’s work or take on his or her tasks. Don’t get caught up in listening to the individual’s complaints and excuses.

As a supervisor of this person you begin to realize this individual is a master of certain things; like avoiding tasks, rules, and obligations. They constantly complain that you don’t understand, support, or appreciate him or her. This individual will always run down your management skills and cause you to questions your own sense of reality. After all, you are the problem, not the passive aggressive person. The key to successfully supervising this person is to not let the individual know how angry you are with her or his behavior. Get a handle on your own feelings and create a plan of attack for dealing with the individual. Try to work out a deal with the person and compromise to get the end result. If he or she will do this, you will do that. And as always in these kinds of situations, document, document, document. Keep a record of all your attempts to work with the passive aggressive person because some day you may need that record.

Keep in mind that when you are trying to build a level of trust in the group, organization or relationship you may have to eliminate the most difficult behaviors before those behaviors destroy the group, organization or relationship. The passive aggressive behavior pattern is one of the most difficult with which to work. This person makes a poor supervisor and he or she doesn’t like to be supervised or be held accountable for his or her behavior.

Until next time, spend some time observing the behaviors of others and make certain you are making correct assumptions and inferences about those behaviors before you label another individual.