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8 Solutions for Managing a Passive-Aggressive Team When people are unhappy but afraid to say so, it's a management problem.

By Tracy Maylett Edited by Frances Dodds

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PhotoAlto | Eric Audras | Getty Images

You've presented your plan to your team, and they appear to be on board. Getting everyone on the same page was, in your mind, the critical first step. Thankfully, they bought in.

When the time comes to implement the plan, everything falls apart. The team fails to follow through with their promises. Deadlines are missed, generally without much regret or accountability. You wonder whether they simply don't care, or if they are intentionally sabotaging the effort. Either way, something's wrong. And this isn't the first time. In fact, rather than the exception, it's the norm.

Related: Are People Actually Listening to and Understanding What You Say? Here Are 5 Signs to Watch.

The plan was clear, and you thought they were all aligned to deliver on the critical initiative. Except for one problem -- your team's actions don't match what you all agreed to deliver, and they don't seem to care. In fact, they appear to be doing anything but what you agreed upon. You're working with a passive-aggressive team.

The Mayo Clinic identifies passive-aggressive behavior as "a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them." When describing individual behavior, specific signs include:

  • Resentment and opposition
  • Procrastination or intentional mistakes
  • Cynical or sullen attitudes
  • Frequent complaints

Similar descriptions can be made of passive-aggressive teams. These teams:

  • Actively or passively sabotage the efforts of others
  • Procrastinate
  • Deliver sub-par work, or just enough to stay out of trouble
  • Fail to acknowledge the urgency of priorities
  • Disengage or lack commitment
  • Complain or place blame, often covertly

Related: Good Leaders Know How to Address Problems With a Team Member, Even When It's Difficult

A passive-aggressive team may appear to agree with an individual, request, plan or an important initiative. However, when the rubber meets the road, there is a clear disconnect between what is said and what is done. Passive-aggressive teams may range from behavior as mild as missing a few minor deadlines or delivering a product that meets only minimum specifications to blatant sabotage. Passive-aggressive teams are, at best, ineffective. At their worst, these teams can be severely damaging.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive team can be challenging. Unless handled directly, these behaviors seldom resolve themselves. Below are eight solutions for managing the passive-aggressive team.

Related: How to Maintain Motivation When Surrounded By Naysayers

1. Look in the mirror.

Understand your role, as manager, in creating the behavior. We may mistakenly believe that individuals don't want to contribute. Sitcoms, movies and comics are full of accounts of slothful employees trying to get by with as little work as possible. However, most of us aren't like that; we want to contribute. Assuming "they just don't care" is an easy cop-out. Understanding your role in contributing to this negative behavior can be very enlightening.

2. Make it safe.

When people don't feel safe, passive aggression may be the result. If they don't feel they can tell you what they're thinking, it's safer to hold back true thoughts and take it out in their actions -- or inaction. And, if the team doesn't feel that you have their backs, they won't have yours.

3. Give them a voice.

Often, passive aggression occurs because team members aren't heard. Not only does having a voice contribute to stronger commitment, it's often a major contributor to understanding what could go wrong -- or right -- with a plan. Team members who are closest to the work understand potential areas of success or failure. When these thoughts aren't voiced, not only does a manager miss out on a wealth of information, he or she is also far less likely to gain the commitment of the team.

4. Explain the why.

Most managers have learned to communicate the "what" -- they clearly outline what needs to be accomplished. Some are also good at outlining the "how" -- steps needed to implement the plan. Few are equally adept at articulating the "why." When team members understand why the plan is important, a manager can enlist the minds and hearts of the team, rather than just hands.

5. Communicate and align expectations.

Expectation gaps don't necessarily result in passive-aggressive behavior. But the outcome of unclear expectations is easily blamed on passive aggression. One of the most common reasons the plans aren't executed or changes aren't effective is because team members lack clarity around what's expected. Expectations, targets and objectives weren't clearly aligned. It's hard to hit a target you didn't know existed. But this isn't just top-down. It works both ways. Managers must also be willing to hear and clarify team expectations.

6. Proactively deal with negative behavior.

While these first five points were aimed directly at the boss, true passive aggression occurs at the individual and team levels. Refuse to tolerate damaging behavior. Point it out, and hold the team accountable. A manager who is not willing to clearly call out this negative behavior is simply reacting with another form of passivity. Create consequences, and hold the team to those expectations.

7. Foster open communication and feedback.

It's difficult for a manager to know what's going on if he or she isn't involved. Get in the trenches. Understand what's going on. Clear roadblocks. Then listen.

8. Don't be part of the behavior.

Sometimes managers get sucked into the trap. Managers often mirror passive-aggressive behavior by falling into similar negative patterns shown by the team. Instead of being open with individuals, some managers take on the team's negative behavior, acting as if all is well, while sulking, waiting to ding team members on performance reviews or even terminating employees. Don't be guilty of the same negative behaviors of which you're accusing your passive-aggressive team.

Tracy Maylett

CEO of management consulting firm DecisionWise

Tracy Maylett, Ed.D is CEO of employee engagement consulting firm DecisionWise and author of the books, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement and The Employee Experience.

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