Sometime ago there was a Harvard Business Review article titled, “Coaching the Alpha Male,” that reviewed the challenges people face working with very talented and extremely assertive male executives. If, however, you think that “Alpha Males” are difficult to deal with, wait until you’ve been sucker-punched by the passive aggressive executive. At least with the former you can see them rushing at you a mile away. They fight, debate, push and cajole in face to face combat. Unfortunately, the only way you know you’re dealing with a passive aggressive executive is by licking your wounds. You know you’ve been hit by something, but you didn’t see the perpetrator because they hit you from behind. And, you will have a very difficult time pinning the crime on the assailant because they are so clever at disguising their attacks. The worst news is that the passive aggressive executive, or PA for short, lurks in every organization…and if you ignore them and hope they’ll go away…you do so at your own and your company’s peril. In this briefing I’ll clue you in on some ways to handle a PA.
The passive aggressive individual, whether he or she is an executive or rank and file employee, is an insidious and highly toxic influence on the morale of an organization and, without quick and decisive action will, at the minimum, rob others of their positive and productive energy through the frustration of dealing with them. Or, on the worse end of the continuum, the passive aggressive executive will literally subvert your plans and initiatives.
The typical way most people encounter a passive aggressive executive is over disagreements in plans of actions affecting them. The PA generally gives up after a brief fight or acquiesces when he meets resistance from a superior or their peer group (team) and then feigns agreement. You think he has agreed and is supporting you. However, soon enough, he some way or another sabotages your efforts while leaving few, if any, fingerprints. You’re left scratching your head trying to figure out why things went sideways with your well planned and seemingly well supported initiatives.
For example, a CEO of a company described to me how one of his lieutenants who, although very talented, frequently berated his colleagues behind their backs. The other colleagues would hear about it from their subordinates. When the CEO or the executives would confront the PA, he responded that he was being “misinterpreted.” “I was talking to my people about a particular initiative that was not progressing well and we simply discussed where the bottle necks were happening and what we needed to do to improve the situation.”
Sounds like a reasonable explanation. He was accurate that there was a problem that needed a solution. How can you argue with his “problem solving” efforts? The bigger problem was, of course, that the PA never acknowledged his part in any bottlenecking. He only found fault with his colleagues when their efforts were flagging. And, because he was also quite arrogant, he made frequent suggestions to his colleagues. However, if they didn’t heed him he would grumble, pout or worse still, stonewall.
The stonewalling is especially insidious. For example, PAs frequently claim, but only when confronted, that competing projects of equal value required their attention and that they will be “glad to help” once they’ve finished this very important project first. Reasonable. Understandable. How can you blame them? You will even feel guilty asking them for help.
However, when the PA’s colleague’s project fails or underperforms, the PA will pick them apart by talking to her boss or her own subordinates about how XX department dropped the ball, etc. Again, the PA’s observations were accurate…her colleague did screw up.
PAs seem almost blood thirsty in their behavior. It’s as if the PA knows when another is bleeding. He or she senses it and then goes for the jugular. Just not face to face…only from behind.
Classic passive aggressive comments – all plausible, perhaps even reasonable (which is why it’s hard to catch a PA) include:
- You or she/he misunderstood me.
- I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you say not to do x. I thought you were just making a suggestion.
- I was only trying to be helpful.
- You told us to take more initiative. I only did what you asked.
- You should have been more specific.
- I told you that might happen.
- If only she/he/they would have followed my suggestions that would not have happened.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the PA would simply say, “I don’t agree with your plan and when you disregard my alternative suggestion it makes me angry.” Or, “I vehemently oppose this plan, but will support the group’s decision (and actually support it without backbiting or stonewalling).” That’s wishful thinking, of course.
Unfortunately, corrective coaching of a passive aggressive executive is extremely difficult because, unlike the executive who is labeled an “Alpha” being labeled “passive aggressive” is not a backhanded badge of honor. The psychological defense mechanism of denial will be front and center protecting the passive aggressive executive from experiencing significant amounts of shame that they would experience if they faced and acknowledged their poor behavior. Michael Dell, who is used as an example in the “Coaching the Alpha Male,” article, can and did proudly say to his employees, “I’m an Alpha Male.” Could you imagine Michael or any executive announcing to everyone, “I’m Passive Aggressive?”
So, what does it take to change a passive aggressive executive?
- Massive amounts of 360 (multi-rater) feedback with irrefutable evidence.
- A boss who won’t let the executive get away with it by confronting the PA with the evidence and then setting clear behavioral expectations with severe consequences for infractions, e.g., job loss.
- Sometimes psychotherapy, is required. Psychotherapy is often needed because PAs are actually quite fearful individuals (even if they don’t come across as fearful) who avoid conflict and getting them to be appropriately assertive is hard because they are irrationally afraid of the consequences. Most of their fear is unconscious, of course. If you ask them if they are afraid, they will usually say, “Of course not.”
- The best defense against a PA is a good offense. Don’t hire one! Conduct thorough reference checking. Always ask:
What is this person like to work with?
What would his/her colleagues say it was like having him/her as a colleague?
How was it working with this person if you disagreed with them?
How does she/he handle criticism?
How does she/he handle conflict?
I hope you never have to deal with a passive aggressive executive. And, if you refer me one to coach…I will charge double my usual fee…combat pay.