Scott’s attitude was a problem for the whole team. He was never happy with anything. He sabotaged team meetings with sarcastic remarks and dismissive body language.
Now Scott was playing with his phone, rather than participating in a brainstorming session led by Chris. Here’s how we’d help Chris deal with Scott’s behaviour. You can use the same strategies to respond to passive aggressive people in your workplace.
Pinpoint the game
Passive-aggressive behaviour works because it’s ambiguous. If Scott is challenged about texting during the meeting, he might say ‘I’m dealing with an urgent customer request.’ Meanwhile, his sneer and voice-tone might reveal he’s playing power games. This is a classic set-up game.
Close them in
There’s no point in Chris challenging Scott’s overt behaviour (the texting). Chris needs to confront the core issue instead. This is Scott’s non-participation in the brainstorming activity. Chris can use a closed question to do this. Closed questions lead towards a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. For example, Chris can ask “Are you willing to participate in this brainstorm, Scott?”
Acknowledge their response
Directly questioning a passive-aggressive person often triggers an aggressive outburst. For example, when challenged by Chris, Scott might react by saying “I don’t see the point in wasting my time.” Chris should be prepared for this reaction – it is entirely predictable. He can respond assertively by reflecting back Scott’s message. For example, “I understand you think this session is a waste of time.”
Set limits on what you’ll accept
Next, Chris needs to set firm boundaries. This means clearly defining the behaviours he will and won’t accept. Chris can do this by saying “I expect everyone here to participate. It’s not acceptable to be in the room and opt out of the brainstorm.”
Give them a choice
Once Chris’ boundaries are set, it’s time to make Scott accountable for his own behaviour. Chris can do this by offering a choice of compliance or absence. In other words, he can say “You have a choice. You can stay in the room, in which case I expect you to participate. Or you can leave and I’ll let your manager know you opted out. What do you want to do?” Whatever Scott chooses, Scott should then turn his attention back to the brainstorming session.
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