Passive aggression and turf wars
Almost always, at the root of passive aggressive behaviour there is some sort of turf war going on.
Passive aggression is where someone does not agree with you but does not allow their disagreement to register and instead seeks to undermine you in indirect ways. Classic passive aggressive tactics include turning up late or not turning up at all to a scheduled meeting; insisting extraneous concerns are addressed before the topic at hand can be discussed; seeking clarification of why and under what authority the meeting is requested, and by what process a decision will be reached; and raising objections before and after the meeting by e-mail. These tactics may arise from someone who is not normally a passive aggressive person, it’s just that, for political reasons, they don’t want their objection to show or to be too obvious. If you find someone is displaying these behaviours towards you, it is likely that:
1) The person doesn’t like you.
2) The person doesn’t know who you are, or why they should be bothered with you.
3) There is a power struggle going on. Most likely, the person resents the fact that you are taking action at all. Perhaps they think they should be doing it, or they don’t want you to get the credit.
4) Not invented here. Some people just won’t get on board with a plan unless they feel it is theirs.
From the causes of passive aggressive behaviour, the solutions present themselves. Properly introduce yourself and build relationships. Take someone who doesn’t like you out to lunch and see if you can find common ground. After all, everyone has a mother that loves them. Take time to explain your reasons for wanting to resolve a conflict. Give people their place. Patiently address all the objections raised and make sure you follow due process.
However, the problem with these solutions should also be evident: they take time. If you come up against passive aggressive behaviour it will, unfortunately, slow you down. If resolution of your conflict is pressing, or you are not a patient person, you play right into the hands of the passive aggressive person.
I have found myself up against quite a few passive aggressive people. I have found them to be intelligent, charming and excellent networkers. They have often been successful in slowing me down which has been a source of professional difficulty and personal stress. However, in many cases I could have done more to prepare the ground beforehand. I wouldn’t have avoided all the passive aggressive tactics, but I would have certainly mitigated some of it. I would still have been slowed down, but not by as much, and certainly progress would have been smoother.
Project roles are especially vulnerable to provoking passive aggressive behaviour because they tend to cut across line hierarchies and have high profile deadlines that must be met. These are the circumstances where, if you push too hard, or allow yourself to become blinkered by the deadline, or you just have an uncontrolled bias for action, you make yourself vulnerable to passive aggressive attacks.
So let me share with you a secret for dealing with passive aggressives, borrowed from the Disney film ‘Frozen’: let it go.