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6/29/2012 12:00 AM

Working with the Passive-Aggressive Colleague

by R. Kent Crookston

From The Department Chair – Summer 2012 (23.1)

In my interaction with hundreds of chairs I have found that the passive-aggressive colleague represents one of the most taxing of all personnel challenges. Passive-aggressive people are not as common as consistent underperformers, nor as daunting as bullies, but wherever they are there will be found frustration and stress among many of their colleagues. The term passive-aggressive (PA) is commonly used to describe people who can be annoying, antagonistic, or even destructive in a passive way. A common practice is to indicate that they will accept an assignment and then fail to do it, or they do it late, or poorly, or both. Passive-aggressive people:
  • Procrastinate
  • “Forget” to do their share of assignments or are deliberately slow and inefficient
  • Complain about unfairness and not being appreciated
  • Are sullen or argumentative
  • Blame their misfortune on others and outside factors
  • Resent suggestions and reject criticism
  • Ridicule and scorn authority

The good news is that not all PA people are so deeply into their condition that they cannot be remediated. Many of us have PA tendencies. We are sometimes late for meetings and assignments. Rather than being “aggressive” and declining a task to someone’s face, we accept it and then postpone following through until it’s too late to do it well and we make excuses. It’s a common defensive tactic for avoiding unpleasant jobs. Behaving this way can quite easily become a habit—but it’s a habit that can be corrected.

The bad news is that there are those whose passive-aggressiveness is apparently deeply rooted in some pain or grievance that they may not be able to identify or express verbally. Someone in their family may have been controlling, there may have been intense power struggles. Their emotions may be so firmly repressed that they don’t even realize they’re being affected by them. Their way of behaving could be self-protective. These people can be extremely difficult to work with and “succeeding” with them can be challenging—many chairs decide to not even try.

Whether your PA colleagues are simply work-escape artists or emotionally troubled, choosing to ignore them is a high-cost decision. Their weak-link behavior diminishes the productivity of the whole department, not just themselves. They not only fail to make their own contributions but they penalize those who take up their slack. Letting them get away with it constitutes a reward for bad behavior and undermines unit morale and the chair’s credibility as a leader. The following are some suggestions that might help a chair counter a PA person’s destructive impact. They are suggestions only and do not constitute professional advice.

Clarify Values and Expectations

It takes a special effort on the part of the chair and perhaps the entire department to ensure that everyone, not just the PA person, understands expectations. Each person in the department must be held to, and comply with, the same standards. Unless this is the case it can be impossible to persuade the PA person to meet even a simple expectation.

Clarify that as chair you are responsible for ensuring that workloads are fairly distributed and that things are done on time and in a quality manner. Ask the PA person to discuss the obvious gap between the department’s expectations and his or her performance.

Follow Policy

Even though the PA person may not be violating any stated policy, you need to be sure you are not, either. Consult with the director of faculty relations and with the dean. If things become intense or alarming seek professional help (and find out how to recommend the PA person for counseling).

Build Trust

The PA person usually has difficulty trusting others, and extending trust to a PA individual often backfires—he or she may be entangled in a web of never being forthright. But if you are clear and concise in your interactions and remain consistent, your PA colleague will know what to anticipate from you—including that you expect things to improve.

Call on the trust of other colleagues and engage them in assisting you by upholding expectations and supporting you in holding everyone accountable. Accountability and peer pressure combined can be effective.

Evaluate Yourself and Your Perceptions

Be honest with yourself. Are you only looking for evidence that the PA colleague is hopeless? Does ignoring or complaining about him or her constitute your management of the situation? If so, you may actually be contributing to the strain on the relationship and to the negative impact on the department.

Compassion has its place. Can you identify some personal issue the PA person is struggling with? Can you think of some way you could help alleviate the individual’s struggle without offloading his or her duties onto others?

Listen

Prepare to be influenced by what you hear and see. Can you glean from your PA colleague’s behavioral patterns some way that you might be able to better draw on his or her talents—in a way that the individual is unlikely to resist?

If by listening and observing you identify an assignment that your PA colleague should be able to fulfill, make a special visit to his or her office and request that person’s services. You should genuinely express your confidence in the individual and the need for his or her skills. Pay attention to your colleague’s response. What can you learn about what motivates him or her? Are there clues about what else might draw the individual in from the sidelines?

Take Effective Action

Recognize all the good behavior that you can. Make sure the PA person hears your genuinely expressed appreciation for what he or she does well. A thoughtful and sincere compliment or a friendly chat about something personal can help set the stage for a productive interaction. Don’t neglect to acknowledge improvement in behavior.

Never ignore counterproductive behavior. 
This is essential. Passive-aggressive people depend on others “not noticing” what they are doing. When you shine a light on their behavior the game changes.

Be persistent and consistent. Don’t expect change with one meeting. Have regular interactions over a period of time using both positive feedback and evaluation of behavioral patterns. Without persistency and consistency it is highly unlikely that improvement will occur.
  • If the PA person misses a deadline call him or her on it, and if it’s repeated impose consequences.
  • If the PA person doesn’t attend faculty meetings call him or her on it each time. Start meetings on time and don’t reward anyone who comes late by going back and filling them in.
  • Repeatedly missing deadlines constitutes a demerit. Do not give a reward or a raise to encourage improvement.
No power struggles or arguments. Rather than debating the particulars of a single incident, call attention to the patterns you notice in performance (build a case). Calmly point out any performance-gap repetitions you see. Keep the department’s expectations handy and draw from them as needed. Make it clear that they apply to all.

No excuses or diversions.
If the PA person attempts to divert the conversation to issues unrelated to the department’s expectations and his or her performance, bring your colleague back to the patterns you see in his or her behavior including the individual’s diversions and excuses. Say, “Let’s not spend time on the particulars of the latest unmet expectation. Let’s consider patterns and work out a plan for putting a stop to recurrences.”

Probe complaints of unfairness.
If the PA person complains about the unfairness of others and passes off his or her unhappiness to outside factors, keep in mind that people who question or complain about rules, policy, or the decisions of their leaders are usually attempting to excuse their own misbehavior or violation of those rules. This, of course, is self-destructive. See if you can work this principle into your discussion.

R. Kent Crookston is professor and associate director over academic administrative support at the Faculty Center at Brigham Young University and author of Working with Problem Faculty (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Email: kent_crookston@byu.edu