News & Insight
January 2004

Your Career Path to Success Learning to Manage Passive-Aggressive Employees

Bill Morin<br />Chairman & CEO<br />WJM Associates

Have you ever managed a person to whom you just couldn't get through? No matter what you said or did, the relationship never seemed to work, and any attempts at coaching either made things worse or had little effect.

Welcome to the world of management. Just when you think you've figured out how to manage people effectively, a situation presents itself that leaves you scratching your head in bewilderment.

There is no one formula for managing people, just as there is no one formula for raising children. That's what makes it so challenging. Each person is unique and different. Each has his own personality, his own style of communicating, his own views of authority figures, his own baggage -- all of which can be possible sources of conflict between you and him.

As managers, our job is to treat all people fairly, but not the same. People need customized managing and coaching, particularly those who are challenging to work with.

Most effective managers have a basic understanding of human behavior. They have insight into people who present particular challenges and how to work with them. Of course, the better you understand yourself, the better you can understand the dynamics that may be going on between you and a difficult employee.

Sometimes we need to adjust and change. Knowing when we are the problem and when the employee is the problem is sometimes difficult to discern. Our own egos, of course, will always point the finger at the other person.

The passive-aggressive person is a tough one to deal with because you are never quite sure how he really feels. His aggression is cloaked in passivity, which sometimes makes it difficult to recognize. So what are some examples of passive-aggressive behavior? It can manifest itself in a multitude of ways, such as:

  • Withholding important information as a way of disempowering another person;
  • Being pleasant and nice to a person and talking viciously about them to others;
  • Setting themselves up to be the victims in situations when in fact they are the perpetrators;
  • Playing subtle mind games that keep people on their guard;
  • Refusing to deal with conflict directly;
  • Punishing another person by shutting down and refusing to communicate; and
  • Doing something hurtful to another person and then pretending not to know what the person is talking about.

Passive-aggressive people are usually highly manipulative. They can be extremely creative and devious in the ways they get people to do what they want them to do. If you don't know what you are dealing with, it can be very frustrating. Your gut tells you something is wrong, but on the surface everything is fine. Here are some general suggestions for dealing with passive-aggressive people:

  • Don't play the same game with them. It will only make matters worse.
  • Try to understand their motives and keep these in the forefront of your mind when you are dealing with them.
  • Stay centered. Do not let them push your buttons. (At least don't let them know they are pushing your buttons.)
  • Don't reward the behavior in any way.
  • Be direct with them.
  • Depending on the situation, point out their contradictory behaviors.

Unfortunately, passive-aggressive people are not the only difficult type employees to manage. Next month, we’ll look at another challenging personality type: the angry person.

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