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4 Strategies to handle Passive Aggressive People

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

It isn’t a difficult task to get a passive aggressive to participate in your group if you know how to identify and work with them. A passive aggressive person is someone who is upset but comes across silent or indifferent. Spotting these types of people is difficult because you tend to think that anyone not speaking up is going along with you. That is far from the truth. If you have a passive aggressive person in your midst and cannot see the signs, then you risk having this type of person propagate negativity in your group, creating a rift.

Passive aggressive people feel angry or are against the situation in which you have cast them. They may seem withdrawn or show signs of agreeing with you. Yet internally they are devising a plan of attack to ensure you fail. In the context of conflict management, passive aggressive people do tend to use avoidance as their conflict response. The trick to spotting them is to see how they act with their peers and others or how they perform tasks you give them. Typically, you’ll find out you have a passive aggressive person on your team when you find out they spoke negatively behind your back or have backstabbed you with an action they did. This is their coping mechanism, avoiding and containing their frustrations will last so long, if nothing is done, it can turn to retaliation.

Here are four stories to help you understand how to manage passive aggressive people:

1. The Fake Nice.

When I moved to Atlanta, I was told everyone in the south was friendly. Everywhere I went I would get strangers greeting me with “hi, how are you?” phrase. I would always just reply “good” and walk by. In the office, I had a person on my team I needed to speak to. Somehow, I could never catch them free and my email invites to set a meeting time were getting unanswered. On my second week in the office, I went to grab a coffee and saw him walking towards me. This was my chance! As he passed me, he said, “how’s it going?”, I stopped to respond. I was the only one that stopped for the conversation. He continued walking by without waiting for a response. I was shocked!

When I spoke to my colleague about what happened, they did not seem to be as perplexed as I was. This is just how they were taught to be with everyone and was considered a polite way of being inclusive. Sadly, I did not agree. I was from the East coast where if someone addresses me the same way, they wait for the reply. If someone didn’t care to talk to the person, then they would just smile or nod while walking by. This fake nice was something new to me.

I decided to go searching for my colleague and recreate the same situation where we would walk by each other. When he greeted me the same way, I got in his path and stopped him with a smile. Then I used the same phrase but added the East Coast flare, “hi, how are you? I just got into town and wanted to introduce myself.” I could see the person was taken aback so I continued talking about how my trip went and the great BBQ they have in town just to ease him. At some point, he spoke back to me and we had a pleasant conversation. Their issue with me showing up was that they thought I would change the way things were done in the office for the worst. Time passed and we just ended up changing the office together for the better!

2. Agreeing to Disagree.

During my career, I went to China more than a dozen times for meetings, to audit the site, or to train the teams. The first time I went to Shanghai to give customer change management process training, I made the mistake of not doing any legwork to see how things were done there. There was a new global initiative for project managers to make sales through change orders during the execution of their projects. It was working in Europe and North America. Now we needed Asia to get on board.

On the first morning, I went prepared with chocolate cookies and candies which I loved to use to break the ice and give everyone energy. They loved the stuff! All talked amongst each other and my translator told me this was a great strategy to brighten the mood. Then I started training. For two hours I spoke, showed them the process and templates to use. They all nodded, continued eating the goodies and looking attentive. I called for a break and told them to get their laptops so we could go through examples together. This was the first time I got the “deer in the headlights” look from most of them. The translator told me they thought the training was just me showing them and them listening. I always liked things to be more interactive. Also with the twelve-hour time difference, answering their questions when I went back home would be challenging. So, it was logical to go through their projects, simulate some examples and answer their questions in the present.

Well, four of the project managers did not come back from the break and I had my translator go get them. Two others were going to team up and use one computer. These were my signs that the group was not for this new initiative. I gave them USB sticks to get the forms they were to use. Then I told them to start filling it out for their customer who had just asked for more work to be done on site. A project manager looked and me and said, “my customers don’t do change orders. They order and we execute on the project.” The room was silent, and I felt everyone looking at me. My response was, “that’s fine, I’m sure not all customers are like that. There are some that give you a contract and then make changes during execution. Does anyone have a customer who has asked for more than the contract’s scope?” When no one answered, I asked the translator to tell them in their native language.

A couple of project managers started talking to my translator and she looked scared of telling me. So, I walked over and told her “just translate, I need to understand the situation.” She told me that the customers are treated with white gloves. Even if they ask for extra, it is done for them for free. Asking for more money would have the project manager loose face with the customer. Then all of them started talking at the same time, saying things like, “it’s not your fault”, “we work differently here”, “we aren’t the sales team”, etc. I used my hands to quiet down the room and decided to take the facilitator approach. For the next hour I asked each one of them to tell me what types of changes their customers had asked in the past and we listed them on the board. Next, we went through each one and had the costs for the company placed next to them. Sometimes seeing things instead of just talking about it helps.

My final question to them was, “if this was your company, could you afford these losses?” I got a lot of “no way” reactions followed by “but this is a big company so we can afford it.” I told them I was there because we could no longer afford these types of losses and together, we need to come up with a way of making back the money or stop the changes from occurring. The remaining time there we put together guidelines they could share with their customers at the start of the contract. A couple of project managers translated the forms in Cantonese and Mandarin because it would help. I was ecstatic with the results, and I knew they were too when they presented me with a gift before I left. I found out that they were taught not to confront their superiors but when I started listening to them, they felt comfortable telling me what they really thought.

3. Empathy is a good offense.

I started teaching a couple of people a year ago and got a student that would make excuses all the time for late work. It started the first week of classes and by the end of the second week when he had not submitted anything, I got worried and reached out. When we spoke, he gave me reasons why he was unable to do the assignments. An example was he didn’t have a computer and had left it at work. So, I had told him to go to any library and use their computer. Somehow after twenty minutes of this barrier and solution play, he said his Apple computer was not working well with the network. Well, in my head I thought he has a computer then. I took a deep breath and told him he had three solutions. One was to get out of the course and get his money back before it was too late. The second was to continue this route and fail the course. The third was to figure out a schedule with me on how to get back on track with the course.

He selected the third solution. So, we worked out a plan when he was going to submit his assignments and for a while this worked. Unfortunately, he started not submitting and this time I was worried he was going to fail. When we started the phone call, his first words were, “I’m not stupid.” I was shocked. I never thought that or said it. In fact, when he applied himself, he was brilliant. So, I asked why he would say this and why he would think it and that is went he started talking about how people didn’t look up to him, how he had issues with words but great with numbers and that his issue was getting his team together to complete the assignments.

I gave him some tactics to help with his team. I also told him he was right about being good with numbers because he was superb at all of his statistical problems. Also, he may have had spelling mistakes, but Windows could help there. I also told him to reach out for an ex-colleague of mine that could mentor him. By the end of the call, he apologized for the first statement and just said that he felt that’s what I thought of him because of late assignments. Now he felt better knowing I was there to help and not hinder his success. He did good finishing his course and got an A.

4. Bullying never works.

I was called in by the Sales manager to discuss removing my project manager from his role because the customer had made a complaint about him. The sales manager continued by giving me examples of what he did wrong. When he told me I had no choice, I responded, “in life we always have at least two choices, to do or not to do” and followed it by telling him I was going to change the project manager’s behavior.

I spoke with my project manager openly about the situation and told him we were going to conduct an anonymous 360 assessment to get a better understanding of people’s perception on his character. He wasn’t happy and started complaining that everyone hated him because he was the smart one in the room. He also didn’t believe in 360 assessment because I was going to choose the colleagues that hate him to answer the survey questions. I told him he could pick provided there were 3 managers in the mix of ten people. He left being all smug and the assessment was sent out.

We got together to review the results and he was surprised. He was expecting better results than he got. He got all aggressive in the meeting room because he couldn’t believe the responses. I gave him the time to vent and just stayed quiet. When he finished, I told him this was not going away and that regardless of who you asked around the office, there were instances where he either bullied them to get information or was patronizing. I followed up with concrete examples from the prior week. Then I told him that he had to change, and I was there to help. He still wasn’t buying it. I ended the meeting and told him to go through the results and think about his next steps. We would meet up tomorrow morning and he would give me his decision.

The next morning, he came in with some things he wanted to change. It looked like all he needed was some time to digest the feedback. I agreed and gave some suggestions from my end that would also help. In the afternoon he had a customer call and the sales manager had decided to be part of the call. I told him I would be there too to support him. He was surprised but said nothing. When we had the call, he was very professional, and I could see he was stopping himself from saying some sarcastic phrase when the customer was giving him piercing remarks. When the call ended, I asked the sales manager how my project manager did because I thought he was perfect. The sales manager agreed but said “all calls need to be like this not only when we are in the room.” I agreed and my project manager spoke up saying he was going to work on being more of a team player.

The project manager ended up keeping the customer and creating a better relationship, and for the next project, they requested him. He also started working better with people in the office and I kept on getting his colleagues come to see me to say how much he had changed for the better. I then had him redo the 360 assessment with the same people four months later and the results were all positive.

When dealing with passive aggressive people make sure you have patience. Remember in many cases they have been this way for so long you are not going to change them if you cannot have them open up to you. So, listen to them, probe them to get to the root of their problem before you approach them. Learning emotional control and the SCARF model along with the collaborative approach is the best way to go. If you get them to open up and express themselves, they will change their demeaner because it’s no longer something they think internally but it’s out in the open. You will see you won’t only improve your team by handling your passive aggressive members, you will also gain their trust!

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