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Dealing With Passive-Aggressive Employees

Pulling your hair out over an underperforming staff member? You may be able to turn them into your star employee.

First printed in Pro Bono News as part of the 'Ask Adam' Column.

“Dear Adam, I’ve been in my current job for more than 10 years. I have a colleague who has been there as long (longer) than I have and she doesn’t seem to pull her weight. She is one of those colleagues that I feel does the bare minimum and always ‘forgets’ to do the simplest tasks and expects the rest of us to ‘plug the gap’. Her role is under mine and I have spoken to my superiors who have spoken to her on several occasions over the course of my career, yet the same things keep happening: tasks don’t get done and instead of taking responsibility she makes excuses. I’ve tried being patient, I’ve tried not caring, I’ve tried pointing things out to her at the time I’ve noticed something but all of this takes so much effort and time I should be applying to my role. The result is I constantly feel drained and resentful towards this woman and it’s gotten to the point where I’m looking for another job just so I don’t have to deal with it anymore. I feel like I have to look after two roles at work and I just don’t want to put myself through that anymore. Do you have any advice for me?” – Anon

Hi Anon,

Ouch. That sounds very frustrating. We all get angry when we believe other people aren’t holding up their end of the social contract and not doing their share. The temptation is to take it personally, to see it as an act of disrespect towards us, and sometimes it is, but it’s usually not specifically towards us.

I’ve spoken before about the four threat responses – fight, flight, freeze and appease. It sounds like you fought and failed, and now you want to flee, but you are just frozen. The problem is that these people are everywhere, so you have no guarantee of not getting one in your next job. Heck, you might get a whole team like this.

Believe it or not, the response that is most useful here is the “appease” response, or a variant of it. Mostly when people think of appeasing they imagine submission and compliance, but that is the extreme negative end of the appeasement spectrum. The helpful end starts with our ability to empathise and understand why other people are behaving this way, and to manage them into a different behaviour.

Almost all human behaviour has purpose, it meets a physical or psychological need, but it’s not always easy to figure out what it is. In this case, there are two frustrated people trying to get their needs met. Let’s start with her.

The behaviour you’re describing sound very passive-aggressive (PA for short). When people are being PA they are trying to gain power, but they are too afraid to do it overtly, so they play the helpless role to avoid punishment. I would suggest, just on spec, that your troublesome colleague is subconsciously using these behaviours to meet her need for autonomy and self-determination.

This is one of Maslow’s Esteem Needs – the need to have some level of self-determination over our lives, which workplaces often strip away from us. It’s a bit like a teenager or toddler who can’t overtly defy their parents’ demands, so they covertly avoid, subvert or “forget” them. Now it’s tempting to think that adults shouldn’t behave this way, but if we really think about it, workplaces often behave like restrictive and authoritarian parents. Many people find themselves working in jobs they don’t like, for people they don’t feel appreciated by, out of fear of becoming destitute. They can’t express their anger about this directly, so they find indirect ways to do it by delivering poor productivity and subtle sabotage.

Unfortunately, it is still rare to find managers who have been taught the skills of creating intrinsic motivation in people. Most managers still motivate mainly through fear – a lot of stick with a touch of carrot to reward compliance. They expect people to perform, and when they don’t they chastise, micromanage or threaten them. It sounds like you have done all the above and feel like you are out of options.

Sometimes I think that all managers should have to train as counsellors first, because counsellors learn very quickly that you can’t force people to change, you can only give them the skills and opportunity to change, and then believe in them just a little bit more than they do. Counsellors also learn to focus on the solution, not the problem, and to look for the deeper motivations for behaviours. Finally, counsellors are trained to be aware of their own emotional reactions to clients and the underlying needs these feelings reflect.

It’s called countertransference, and if it’s handled right it often makes the difference between good and bad therapy. If a counsellor is frustrated by a client, they need to figure out what is going on for themselves first to avoid becoming a punitive parent figure, which often gives us a clue about what is going on for the client. So, let’s do some counsellor thinking together.

To solve the problem with her behaviour, we need to solve the problem with yours. You have been trying to take her power away to get her to do what you want, instead of empowering her to get what she wants, which will quite naturally get the result you are after. You stated that she has been there longer than you, and watched you be moved above her, and probably some other people too. How do you imagine that it feels to be passed over like this? How would it feel to you to see your career stalled, yet not be able to leave for fear of not being able to pay your mortgage and losing your long service leave?

Probably a bit like you are feeling now, because in some way you have the same problem. You think that her performance reflects poorly on yours, and you fear that it will affect your advancement and your reputation. Like her, you feel powerless to change this and get what you want. Like her, you are reacting to that feeling by being subtly aggressive. But she is winning, because employment law prohibits you from being able to escalate to the next level of aggression. While you stay in “power” mode you are locked into a lose-lose dynamic.

So, to meet your needs you are going to have to meet hers. That means giving her the opportunity to win – to demonstrate her skills and abilities and earn the possibility of advancement and recognition. To create a win-win, you will need to give some ground, to lose the battle so you can win the war. There are lots of ways you can do this.

  1. Pay attention to the things she does do, not the ones she doesn’t. Lavish her with praise and recognition. Ask for her help with somethings and acknowledge her expertise. This gives her something to lose if she continues underperforming. Right now she has nothing to lose or gain.

  2. Give her more authority and responsibility, making sure to let her know that it’s because she has the skill to take it on. Make her feel needed and valued and give her the opportunity to prove she deserves your good regard.

  3. Prepare an advancement plan with all your staff individually and give her the opportunity to change her stars. It’s likely that she doesn’t know how to believe in herself and needs someone to show her that she is worth more than she thinks.

  4. Give her a project to manage, with other people to manage under her. This gives her the opportunity to earn status and the experience of how it is for you to manage other people.

  5. Send her to some leadership training, with a clearly expressed view that you want to see her reach her potential in the organisation.

  6. Run the team through some development courses focused on career advancement.

Not all at once though. Start with the small stuff, lest she smell a rat in your new “nice boss” hat. You are going to have to earn her trust bit by bit, and to keep reminding yourself that she is doing this because she is afraid and feeling undervalued.

The best way to defeat an “enemy”, is to make them an ally.

Pull this off, and you will look like a star to your superiors. Potentially, you move up and so does she.

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