Ask A Coach is a column where Intellect’s ICF-credentialed coaches, licensed counsellors, and clinical psychologists address the hard questions. In this instalment, Xiao Ling draws from her sessions with struggling managers and shares practical tips for others in the same boat.
The last year has given rise to a great many buzzwords — from “quiet-quitting” to “resenteeism”. These seldom account for the nuances of employee disengagement, but they resonate with employees for a plain reason – validation.
But by using these buzzwords flippantly, however, we may inadvertently oversimplify a complex topic and overlook crucial details.
“Toxic”, for example, is widely used to describe settings and relationships which appear dysfunctional and unhealthy. While it gives language to an individual’s subjective experience, labelling without providing context does little to address underlying issues.
In my work with company leaders and managers, I’ve heard numerous stories about “toxic” employees. It could be a team member who has stopped being collaborative, or made a habit of gossiping and spreading negativity to other colleagues. But rather than writing them off as “toxic” individuals, it’s more helpful to see their acting out as challenging behaviours.
Sam’s silent protesters
These harmful behaviours in the workplace are bound by a common thread: passive-aggression. I usually call these employees “silent protesters”; to avoid verbal confrontation, they express disagreement and resistance indirectly.
“Silent protesters” aren’t only a challenge to managers and fellow employees – they take a toll on the whole organisation. They create tension and conflict within teams, which leads to decreased productivity, low engagement, and high turnover. In the long term, a hostile workplace where people feel unsafe forms.
Sam, a senior manager at a big tech company, had been struggling with the above issues for some time when he approached me saying, “they’re driving me crazy.”
At the time, his team members constantly skipped meetings and procrastinated on email correspondence. Some avoided talking to one other, hindering collaboration and slowing projects down. Others withheld important information about their clients or projects, impacting the team’s overall performance.
“They said yes to everything but didn’t follow through. When I asked them what they needed from me, I got nothing from them. I don’t get it. Why can’t they just… talk?”
Does Sam’s situation sound familiar to you? The causes of passive-aggressive behaviours in the workplace are complex, but being a coach has made me privy to the “silent protesters’” side of the story and why they don’t speak up.
Why employees behave passive-aggressively
- Fear of retaliation – “I’m afraid that my boss wouldn’t promote me if I disagreed with him. So I’d better keep my mouth shut.”
- Unsafe work environment – “Others have gotten into trouble or received fewer opportunities after voicing their opinions.”
- Lack of communication skills – “I’ve never been a vocal person and I struggle to articulate my needs. I don’t know how to escalate issues to my manager.”
- Lack of response – “My boss ignored me when I spoke up in the past. Why bother if he doesn’t ever listen?”
These barriers may be exacerbated by cultural factors. My work with global clients made me realise that passive-aggressive behaviour is much more prevalent in Asian workplace cultures, which value harmony, obedience, and respect for authority. It’s a way for “silent protesters” to express themselves without challenging societal values.
Managing passive-aggressive behaviours
“I get that it’s difficult to speak up, but it’s unfair. They don’t tell me what they want, and get upset when they don’t get what they want. What am I supposed to do? I can’t read their minds!”
Sam was certainly right. It’s never the leaders’ job to read their employees’ minds, nor are they capable of doing so. Instead, they can only focus on creating a safe environment and promoting open communication. Here are some steps leaders can take to address the elephant in the room.
1. Bring behaviours to their attention gently
If a team member has been behaving passive-aggressively for a long time, they may not even recognise it. Leaders can make them aware in a non-judgemental manner by describing what they notice, not their interpretation of it.
Instead of: “I noticed that you have stopped participating in our group discussions because you’re too afraid to speak up.”
Say: “I noticed that you have stopped participating in our group discussions. I’m concerned as I would love to have your input more frequently.”
The person isn’t the problem, their behaviour is. So, remember to focus on specific examples instead of their personality or character. Stay in conversation and allow them the time and space to tell their side of the story, as you would when delivering constructive criticism.
2. Validate your team member’s feelings
Next, leaders can acknowledge that team members may be fearful, anxious, or nervous about speaking up at work. By doing so, you step into their shoes even just for a moment, recognise the power dynamic at play, and give their passive aggression the benefit of doubt.
In Sam’s words earlier, this could sound like: “Sometimes, it can be difficult to speak up.”
3. Address environmental factors you can control
As noted earlier, some employees behave passive-aggressively because they feel unheard, unseen, and unsafe in the organisation. If a team member has previously met with a dismissive attitude or, worse, retaliation, they may feel disheartened.
Leaders may address these external factors to encourage desirable behaviours like open communication. This could look like introducing an anonymous feedback mechanism or leadership training, which can help managers with active listening skills.
4. Address individual factors you can control
If employees report high psychological safety, and team members still shy away from speaking up, perhaps they simply do not know how to. Communication is a skill like any other, and leaders provide support for employees to pick it up.
DISC and Enneagram workshops, for example, can help employees appreciate different personalities in the office and learn how to get through to them. Coaching is another resource that helps individuals express themselves and improve interpersonal relations at work, sculpting a more positive work culture altogether.
5. Journey with team members
Don’t expect changes to happen overnight, though. Passive-aggressive behaviours are the product of complex factors both internal and external, and unlearning old habits takes time. Leaders may conduct regular check-ins to acknowledge improvements, identify challenges, and discuss solutions together.
While understanding, patience, and compassion can go a long way, leaders need not be afraid to involve human resources where necessary. As much as we want to be supportive, a workplace cannot function well without appropriate boundaries and rules.
HR’s involvement may be needed to protect other employees and the organisation if:
- Passive-aggressive behaviours persist despite all efforts
- Passive-aggressive behaviours put the safety of others at risk
- Passive-aggressive behaviours may lead to legal issues
- Team members refuse to take responsibility and resist changes
Behaviours make a culture
These strategies boil down to one simple but important objective – a safe work environment. Ultimately, passive-aggressive behaviour stems from a lack of psychological safety within an organisation, and their employees’ inability to communicate assertively and confidently.
One reinforces the other, and a virtuous cycle is key to workplace wellbeing. Leaders may point team members in the right direction, but they don’t have to do it alone. That’s what Intellect’s coaches are for. Learn more about how behavioural health coaching can mould your organisation’s culture here.