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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Recognizing Passive Aggression in the Workplace

In addition to Passive Aggressive Diaries, I have been Blogging for Psychology Here's an item I recently posted there on passive aggressive behavior in the workplace:

His workplace resume reads something like this:

Work History

• Avoiding responsibility for tasks
• Doing less when asked for more
• Missing deadlines
• Withholding information

Professional Activities
• Leaving notes and using e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication
• Arriving late to work; extending lunch break
• Using sick days during major team projects
• Resisting suggestions for change or improvement

Special Qualifications
• “Forgetting” and “misplacing” important documents
• Embarrassing co-workers during meetings and presentations
• Justifying behavior with plausible explanations
• Consistently behaving this way across most workplace situations

Does someone in your office boast these passive aggressive credentials?

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger. In many workplace settings, where adults spend the majority of their waking hours and corporate hierarchies inhibit direct expression of feelings, the passive aggressive employee is able to sabotage everything from individual deadlines to department morale to organizational productivity. It is critical that employers be able to recognize passive aggressive behaviors in the workplace before they negatively impact output and efficiency. Do any of your workers exhibit these common tactics of passive aggressive workers?

Temporary Compliance
The passive aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses his underlying anger through temporary compliance. Though he verbally agrees to a task, he behaviorally delays its completion, by procrastinating, "forgetting" important deadlines, "misplacing" documents, or arriving late. For the passive aggressive worker who feels under-acknowledged by colleagues and management, acts of temporary compliance are most satisfying.

Intentional Inefficiency

The passive aggressive worker feels it is more important to express his covert hostility than to maintain his appearance of professional competence. He uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way:

Tom felt snubbed when passed over for a promotion. He decided to go about his job in a new way; the quantity of his output did not change, but his work became marred with missed details, important omissions, and critical errors. Though Tom never missed a deadline and took on every requested assignment, the quality of his final product had a way of creating embarrassing moments for unsuspecting supervisors caught presenting misinformation.

To protect your office from the passive aggressive saboteur, look out for employees whose work is consistently at or below minimum standards, who insists "no one told me," and who personalizes any confrontations from authority, playing up their role as victim.

Letting a Problem Escalate
Teamwork and communication are key to productivity in the workplace. When a passive aggressive employee withholds important information or deliberately fails to stop a momentary glitch from turning into an irreversible gaffe, entire operations can be halted or even shut down. The (mis)use of sick days is an area of particular vulnerability in the workplace:

Brenda called in sick the day before a major deadline, knowing that her presence was critical to her department’s success. She took great pleasure in single-handedly foiling the quarterly report and in the resulting company-wide affirmation that without her, the department could not succeed.

Sabotage is the name of the game for the passive aggressive employee who justifies her characteristic crimes of omission by saying, “I didn’t do anything.”

Hidden but Conscious Revenge
In contrast to the inaction that marks the previous tactic, some workers use covert actions to get back at superiors against whom they hold a grudge. The passive aggressive employee is keenly aware that the person with whom he is angry has enough power and authority to make his professional life miserable, so he decides it is not safe to confront him directly. Whether it be through spreading gossip that maligns the boss’s reputation or planting a computer virus that shuts down office IT systems for a week, the passive aggressive employee feels justified in taking secret revenge in the workplace.

By the nature of their covert acts, passive aggressive employees are skilled at evading the long arm of the workplace law. Unchecked, a compliant rule-breaker can have a major impact on an organization’s productivity and morale. When employers understand the warning signs and quickly recognize passive aggressive patterns, they can protect their workplaces from being the unwitting victim of this ideal office crime.

1 comment:

  1. My initial response to this article was one of interest. I enjoyed how the entry gave examples of workplace passive-aggressive behaviors in the form of a resume. Further, I found it helpful how the entry further explained passive-aggressive behaviors by breaking them down into the four levels and giving specific examples of each level. A story I have that relates to this entry occurred at an after school day care I worked at. The director of this day care always came to work with a bad attitude. Also, she always arrived late to work and always found fault with everything the staff did. Further, she always verbalized her annoyance with the staff right in front of the children. This woman was of a higher position than us and we did not want to yell at her in front of the children, so the staff became passive-aggressive. On the temporary compliance level, she would ask that we perform certain tasks (a particular craft with the children, or cleaning the supply room) and we would agree but never do it and say we forgot. Also, on the few days that the director did show up on time for our staff meetings we would show up late. For the intentional inefficiency level, one of my coworkers felt that it was more important to express her covert hostility than to maintain her appearance of professional competence. This coworker in turn would become just as loud and intimidating when talking to the director as the director was with her, regardless of the children or parents present. Most memorable however was when the director confronted the staff for standing together. The director would constantly repeat, “You all need to split up and circulate”. One day the director stated that when we were in a small room and had only a few children. With this my coworker pulled a table from the side of the small room into the center of the room and lay on top of the table stating, “Here you want me to spread out and circulate? Well is this good enough for you?” Once again this occurred in front of the children. When talking about letting a problem escalate, we would not tell my director when the supervisor called stating that certain paper work needed to be handed in by a certain time. Lastly, at the level of revenge I had a personal encounter with this director. One day at work I made a mistake by accident and the director proceeded to tell me, in a loud voice in front of the children, that I could have gotten written up for my mistake. Then one day the director made a mistake, so I turned her into my supervisor and she did get written up for her mistake, but at least the children weren’t aware of it because I didn’t voice it like you could.