Today, I want to discuss the behavior of “passive-aggressive” individuals.

These are people who, when you ask them for an opinion, will say they have no opinion.

When you ask if they are ok, they will say they are fine.

However, deep down, they are not fine and they certainly have opinions. I may be going out on a limb, but, in extreme cases, passive-aggressive individuals are secretly wishing that a specific project or the company in general, will fail.

Are these people bad? How do you deal with them?

My opinion is that passive-aggressiveness is trained, not born. When you have passive-aggressive people on your team, chances are, your environment is not open and safe enough.

When you don’t feel safe to express your opinion, your only way out is to accept. If you feel your opinion is not being valued, you will become passive. If you feel like you — as a person — are not being valued, you will turn aggressive.

So, as a leader, you MUST not allow passive-aggressiveness to grow. Some people, when upset, will turn passive. Your job is to help people express their opinion. Create a safe environment.

To put it another way, having passive-aggressive people around you might actually be your fault. You need to create an environment where your team never needs to be passive. Using the “Don’t be Fine” rule is one way.

Passive-aggressive people create negative energy. They corrupt your team and encourage negative behavior.

So, if we find them in our team. How do we deal with them?

First, decide if you still can trust this person or these people. If the answer is no, then, no matter how painful it is, you have to move on. Moving on could mean you leave the team, or that you allow this person (or group of people) to leave the team.

However, if you still trust this person or still have hope, you need to do your best to help. Passive-aggressiveness is fundamentally a defensive mechanism. In order to help, you need to overcompensate for what this person fears.

Before addressing the passive-aggressive person, you need to put in a set of ground rules to prevent the situation from getting worse.

  1. You first need to stop the symptom. Set a super clear rule of zero tolerance on passive-aggressive behavior. Tell the team you will no longer tolerate such behaviors.
  2. Set clear core values. What do you/your team believe in? Set a list of core values. Make sure you stand by these values. Tell your team clearly that you intend for the entire team to be bound by these values. Team members who do not believe in the same values should leave the team. Invite them to do so.

Now, sit down with the person one-on-one. Your job is not to “fix” this person. Your job is to allow for an opportunity to rebuild trust. Building trust is a slow, two-way process.

  1. Chances are the passive-aggressive person does not feel valued. So talk one-on-one. Try your best to see if you can find out what he/she is not happy about. This will not be easy and will not be a one-time discussion.
  2. Communication is your best weapon. During your conversation, reiterate the rules you set. Re-explain your core values and why those are your core values. The why matters greatly.
  3. Trust is a two-way street. You cannot demand that somebody trust you. Start by showing your vulnerability by sharing your stories about why you developed the core values. Did you go through some setbacks and learn a lesson? Share about it. You build trust by showing trust.

I wish I can give you a silver-bullet on this issue. Unfortunately, I cannot. Building trust is the primary job of any leader.

Let’s build highly-effective teams through trust.