24 Oct 2017


By Marc Wilson
Marc is a partner at Global Advisors and based in Johannesburg, South Africa

This article is part of a series of Global Advisors thoughts:

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    Everybody knows the behaviour. We all experience it from others and all of us will be guilty of it at one time or another.

    The sulky silence, the acquiescent “Yes,” the reserved feedback, the withheld compliment, not accepting compliments, the refusal to participate, minimum acceptable effort, sarcasm, put-downs, 'forgetting,' lying, procrastinating – they're all examples of passive aggressive behaviour. It is the cancer eating at your relationships with your significant other, your co-workers, your friends and your family.

    If you are a leader it is the cancer eating at your organisation.

    Maybe passive aggressive behaviour exists to an even greater extent in relationships we are committed to – our families will still be family, our spouses are married to us for better or worse. It allows the behaviour to continue to a far greater extent than an acquaintance might.

    In most ways, passive aggressiveness is worse than outright aggression. An argument can be resolved, criticism understood and anger or sadness worked on and resolved. Passive aggression invites no constructive response and escalates rather than resolves issues.

    Maybe passive aggressiveness starts through unspoken anger, resentment or sadness. Maybe it starts from fear and being disempowered. Maybe from a lack of caring enough to go through the trouble of confronting an issue and or tackling the difficulty of feedback. Any number of issues such as jealousy, insecurity or regret might underlie a resigned grimace.

    I wonder if passive aggression might also be misdiagnosed or escalated from electronic communication? Experts are quick to tell us that 80% of communication is from non-verbal cues. A Whatsapp message, an email or even a voicemail cannot contain these. As such we may misinterpret a poorly phrased or abbreviated response as passive aggressive when it is not intended that way. Or perhaps the very nature of the medium encourages us to make a passive aggressive response.

    The problem is that passive aggressiveness can start with a moment of bad behaviour but if not stopped, it can become a pattern and draw similar behaviour from others. It spreads just like a cancer. Once it spreads it can do so much damage that it becomes difficult to recover the relationship that existed before it began.

    Stopping passive aggressive behaviour is as much the duty of the recipient as that of the perpetrator.

    We may excuse inaction as not wanting to be confrontational. Or because we don’t want to lose the relationship. Be sure of this – you are losing the relationship anyway.

    You have less time than you think. On the one hand, the cancer is spreading and at some point, it becomes incurable. On the other hand, people give up, move on and pass on (life truly is short). If you care about the relationship or your organisation, you don’t have much time.

    If you are perpetrator of passive aggressive behaviour, awareness and a desire to stop are the beginning. From there it takes bravery to understand the underlying issue and to confront this issue with the recipient of your aggression. It also requires risk – perhaps the risk you were trying to avoid through not confronting the issue. But it can start very simply: “I’m aware that I am not acting the way I would like to or the way I aspire to behave. I’d like to change that.”

    If you are the recipient of passive aggression, you deserve better. You may, of course, be guilty of some underlying cause of the aggression. Either way, it is in your interest to stop the cancer. The personality of the perpetrator, your relationship to them and how important they are to you will define your response. You have the right to insist that it stops or you will end the relationship. You might know if such a blunt response will constructively reach a conclusion (a constructive conclusion might be ending the relationship). If not, you might choose to approach the situation far more delicately, “I’ve noticed you seem to be upset with me about something. I’d like to get our relationship back to what it should be.” Be prepared for more passive aggressive responses in both cases. That could start with feigned surprise and refusal to acknowledge any passive aggressive behaviour at all.

    Passive aggression can come from 'good' places such as fear of confrontation, fear of disappointing expectations or fear of losing a relationship. Once it becomes ingrained it becomes a fault of the perpetrator and the recipient. Stop it.

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