Successful Supervisor 33 Passive Aggressive

July 2, 2017

I have mentioned all kinds of difficult employees in this series, but as yet I have not mentioned the “Passive Aggressive.”

On Wikipedia, the malady is described as “the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behavior, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.”

For a supervisor, dealing with a passive aggressive is particularly challenging because this individual will eventually do the work requested, but the supervisor has to deal with a lot of pushback and rotten attitudes on a continual basis.

This employee has a kind of disease that is like a cancer that will spread if left unchecked.

If the passive aggressive employee was operating in a vacuum, the supervisor might be able to endure the strain, but the impact this type of employee has on the whole team becomes a huge impediment to the culture of the organization, and thus he or she must be dealt with effectively.

To give you a sense of what a passive aggressive employee might sound like, consider a situation where the supervisor is trying to create some energy to tackle a particularly challenging task for her team.

The passive aggressive might listen with a bored look on his face and then utter one of his favorite expressions: “Whatever…”

Let’s look at some tips for dealing with a passive aggressive (PA) personality.

Tips for Supervisors

Call them on it

The PA employee appears to be uncooperative as a way of gaining attention. His ultimate goal is often to skate the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior with great care to remain employed but still make life miserable for his supervisor.

If she would simply indicate that his pushback has become an unacceptable level, then the PA employee is likely to change behavior, at least temporarily.

Once a change in attitude is obvious, the supervisor can give gentle but not effusive praise. In some cases, this shift in feedback is enough to make a more lasting shift.

If the employee falls back into a pattern of PA behavior, the supervisor can say something like, “Oh, you were doing so well with a more positive attitude; let’s not slip backward at this point.”

Take a direct approach

With some people, a direct approach of a heart to heart discussion with the employee will work. Simply point out your observations and let the employee know you are not going to tolerate his antics. In some situations that will be enough to bring the employee around.

You can ask the employee for help because of the negative effect his passive aggressive behavior is having on the operation.

In taking this approach, refrain from threatening the employee with an “or else” statement; simply put the request out there and appeal to his nobler side.

Work on Accountability

I have written extensively on Accountability earlier in this series, so I will not repeat the ideas here, but in the accountability discussions, the supervisor can gain some leverage with a passive aggressive.

Stress that it isn’t enough to be accountable for the work getting done. Each person needs to realize that he or she has an impact on other people as well.

The PA employee can reduce the effectiveness of any group by lowering the morale of everyone. That action will lower productivity and cause missed commitments.

A process of peer pressure that sends a signal of unwillingness of the group to let the PA employee hamper the success of the group can be very helpful.

Don’t Accept Excuses

Part of the way a PA employee gets to slack off without repercussions is to make lame excuses for not doing what was expected. The supervisor can thwart this kind of behavior by simply refusing to accept excuses for poor or late work.

Just be alert to the words being used by the employee and when the word “because” comes up, make a statement that you are not going to tolerate it.
Simply blow by the excuse as if it was not even stated, and get back to the requirements.

Soon, the PA employee will realize that the ploy does not work with you and stop trying to use it. Be vigilant, because he will continue to test you periodically to see if he can wear you down. The message needs to be that missed deadlines are not erased by cooking up some reason why the problem was not the employee’s fault.

Focus on reality

The PA employee lives in a kind of fantasy world of his own making. You can bring the conversation back to reality by simply restating the requirements. If the employee is resistant to this approach simply state “The situation is XYZ and you need to do ABC now.” You can also spell out the consequences of not complying with duties.

Hide Your Goat

Often the passive aggressive employee is just trying to push your buttons to see how far he can go before you get rattled. Basically, he is trying to “get your goat” to see what you will do about it.

Steve Gilliland, an acquaintance from the National Speaker’s Association, suggests that you can simply hide your goat.

You need to refuse to get upset and just turn the negative energy back at the employee with a comment like, “I know what you are doing, and it is not going to have any impact except to make you look immature in the eyes of your friends.” Now you are using a form of peer pressure to bring the employee back into line.

Confirm Established Goals

The PA employee is compromising the ability of the group to accomplish its goals. Point out that there is no relief from the pressures on the organization, and that the entire team is responsible for meeting the goals. Point out the employee’s contribution to the common goal and relate the situation to a sports analogy where the entire team needs to perform well for the mission to be accomplished.

Working with an employee who uses passive aggressive tendencies can be exasperating, but you ultimately can control the behavior and shape it to be acceptable. Use the tips in this article to help you win the battle and remain in control.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Leaders: Hold Yourself Accountable

April 29, 2012

Several managers I know are fond of saying “we have to hold our people accountable.” I think the process of making sure people need to step up to responsibility is a good one, but it really needs to start at the top. Unfortunately, I see many top leaders failing to hold themselves accountable first.

Let’s envision a plant manager who has a problem of extremely low morale in the factory. The supervisors are telling the manager that people are upset because of no raise in 3 years and the threats of layoffs. They are tired of being abused and kept in the dark. The productivity is at an all time low, and the only way to take cost out is to further reduce the workforce. If you were that manager, how would you go about engineering a rapid turnaround in the performance of your plant?

One interesting strategy is push your chair back from the desk, stand up, walk down the hall, go in the bathroom, look in the mirror, and ask yourself some tough questions like the following:

• Morale is terrible in this plant, and as the manager in charge, how have you been contributing to this problem?
• What is preventing you from fully holding yourself accountable for this awful situation?
• In what ways have you been trying to lay the blame on the supervisors, employees, bad economy, suppliers, business downturn, competition, etc., and how can you deal with the current situations and business environment in a more empowering and effective way for all concerned?
• What fundamental changes in the structure, behaviors, values, and vision are you going to make to completely change the environment?
• What behaviors do you need to change, starting right now, to build a culture of higher trust?
• In what ways can you change the attitudes of the workers by changing your own attitudes and behaviors?
• Since bonuses, or picnics, or parties, or hat days are not going to have much impact on long term motivation, how can you find out what really will inspire people and then implement the proper changes to the environment?
• How can you be a better mentor for your supervisors as well as train them to be better mentors to their own staff?
• How are you going to find a way to quadruple the time you have available to communicate with people?
• Do you need assistance to solve these issues? If so, what kind of help could you use and where can you find it?
• How can you know if or when it is time to pursue other opportunities and let someone with a different skill set handle the turnaround?

Yes, that is tough medicine, and yet I believe if the cold realities in these questions were internalized by some top leaders, conditions might start to change. It is only through the behaviors and attitudes of the top leaders that real changes can be made in an organization. Once top leaders step up to their own accountability, then the rest of the organization will quickly become enrolled in a new and positive vision for the enterprise.


8 “Be-Attitudes” of Holding People Accountable

June 12, 2011

A frequent refrain of top managers is that “we need to do a better job of holding people accountable.” Accountability seems to be the mantra for organizational get well programs these days. I can agree with this in part, and yet there is an aspect of accountability that feels to me like a cop out.

The key to leadership is to create an environment whereby people do the best they can because they want to do it. When employees know it is clearly in their best interest to give their maximum discretionary effort to the organization, managers don’t have to crack the whip as often. Imagine working in an environment where people do the right things not because they are expected, but because it is in their best interest. In that atmosphere, holding people accountable would nearly always be a positive occurrence rather than negative. How refreshing!

It is the actions, attitudes, and intentions of leaders, not the rank and file, that make the environment of either reinforcement or punishment the habitual medication for individual performance issues. Let’s examine 8 attitudes or behaviors of leaders that can foster a culture where holding people accountable is a precursor to a feeling of celebration instead of a sentence to the dungeon.

Be clear about your expectations – It happens every day. The boss says, “You did not file the documents correctly by client; you totally messed up.” Then, the assistant says, “You never told me to file them by client, so I used my initiative and filed them by date because that is what they taught us in Record Retention.” Holding people accountable when the instructions are vague is like beating an untethered horse for wandering off the path to eat grass.

Be sure of your facts – I learned a painful lesson about this early in my career. I gave my administrative assistant a letter to type for a customer. When I got it back, the letter was full of obvious errors. I immediately held her accountable for the sloppy work and called her into a small conference room to let her know of my disappointment. When I told her about the errors, she said, “Well if you had taken the time to notice the initials on the bottom of the letter, you would have seen that I farmed that work out to Alice because I was busy with other things. I did not type that letter.” Gulp. I tried to cover with, “I am glad, because your work is usually higher quality than that,” but the irrevocable damage had been done. If you are going to accuse someone of sloppy work, make sure it was done by that person.

Be timely – If there is an issue with performance versus stated expectations, bring the matter up immediately. If you wait for a couple days before trying to bring up the issue, it just tends to cloud and confuse the person who did not meet expectations. If a boss says, “You did not answer the phone in the proper way last week,” how is the employee supposed to even remember the incident?

Be Kind – Always apply the Golden Rule liberally. If you had a lapse in performance, justified or not, how would you want to get the information? Keep in mind that some people are more defensive than others, so if you like your feedback “straight from the shoulder,” tone it down when dealing with a particularly sensitive individual.

Be Consistent – If you are a stickler for certain behaviors, make sure you apply the discipline consistently. Coming down hard on Mike for being late for work can seem unfair if you habitually let Mary waltz in 45 minutes after the start of the shift. Always avoid the appearance of playing favorites. Recognize that, as a human being, you do have differences in your attitudes toward people, but when holding people accountable, you must apply the same standards across the board.

Be Discrete – Embarrassing a person in public will create a black mark that will live for a long time. If there is an issue of performance, share the matter with the individual privately and in a way that upholds the dignity of the person. This issue also refers to the Golden Rule.

Be Gracious – Forgiving a person who has failed to deliver on expectations is sometimes a way to set up better performance in the future. Get help for individuals who need training or behavior modification. A leader needs to be mindful of his or her personal contribution to the problem through past actions, like not dealing with a problem when it is small. If the current infraction is a habitual problem or one born out of laziness, greed, or revenge, then stronger measures are needed. People cannot be allowed to continually fail to meet expectations. The corrective measures will be based on the severity and longevity of the problem. One caveat: gracious behavior cannot be faked, so be sure you are calm and have dealt with your own emotions before speaking to the employee.

Be Balanced – This is an incredibly important concept. There is nothing written on a stone tablet that says all forms of accountability must be negative. In fact, I love it when someone holds me accountable for all the wonderful things I have done along the way. If we view accountability as both a positive and a corrective concept, then we can remove much of the stigma associated with the word. When I hear a top manager say, “We need to hold our people accountable,” I assure you that it means negative feedback in most cases. This is an easy thing to change by simply modifying our pattern of feedback.

Holding people accountable is a great concept if it is used in a consistent, kind, and thoughtful way. Try changing the notion of accountability in your work area to incorporate the 8 “Be-Attitudes” above, and you will have a significant improvement in your culture.