by Brittney Maxfield September 14, 2022
Dear Crucial Skills,
I work with a senior employee who is passive-aggressive, interrupts the boss, pontificates, challenges direction he does not agree with, and diminishes team morale. I’d like to talk with him about this, but not sure how to begin or what to say. Can you help?
Dear Fed Up,
Do you know the adage “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family”? Well, for the most part, the same goes for your coworkers. At work we are thrown into teams and cohorts of people that perhaps we’d never choose to hang out with on the weekend, or at all for that matter. And yet, despite a lack of affinity for these people, you’re required to not only get along with them, but also work with them to accomplish important projects. As if the work you were required to do wasn’t challenging enough, throw in diverse personalities, unique experiences, and bad behaviors, and it’s a miracle any work gets done at all.
This is exactly why we call our skills crucial. They aren’t just nice-to-have ideas on how to get along; they are essential to positive and productive social interactions and teamwork. When a colleague operates in the way you describe, how do you speak up?
Our research on verbal violence and bullying behavior in the workplace shows that people who demean or verbally abuse their colleagues often aren’t held accountable. Others assume “This is how they are, and nothing I do or say will change them or their behavior.” We choose to say nothing, stay away, avoid working with them, and vent to others (including your favorite advice column). These non-responses do nothing to help someone change their behavior, but instead provide silent endorsement that their behavior is acceptable. As my former colleague David Maxfield used to say, “Silence isn’t golden, it’s permission.”
So, I’ll start by congratulating you for taking steps to not simply acquiesce to your colleague’s harmful behavior. You can speak up and illuminate to your colleague the impact of both the intended and unintended consequences of his behavior. Now, whether he chooses to hear and receive your message is not up to you, but you can do your part to try and change the social dynamic of your team.
Check Your Story
Before you speak up, take pause and question the story you’re telling yourself about your colleague. You describe him as passive-aggressive, someone who pontificates, and who challenges others when he doesn’t agree. While these behaviors do sound unsavory, there could be another side. Consider that it’s possible your view of your colleague has been unfairly colored. For example, maybe he also has a dry sense of humor, is eager to share ideas but struggles to clearly express his views, and maybe he isn’t afraid to speak up when he disagrees with a decision he sees as harmful to the organization. When presented this way, these qualities could be beneficial to a team. Even if you consider this other perspective and still decide his actions are harming morale and should be confronted, the act of challenging the story you are telling about him will help you approach the conversation more compassionately.
Reverse Your Thinking
When someone behaves badly, most of us suffer in silence because all we consider are the risks of speaking up. Those who speak up and hold others accountable tend to do the opposite. They think first about the risks of NOT speaking up. If you choose to say nothing, your colleague will continue to alienate his teammates and destroy morale. Work—and any joy around doing that work—is unlikely to go well in this situation. The risks to both relationships and results are high. So, when you head into the conversation and a wave of doubt comes crashing in, think about those risks and proceed with confidence.
Lead with Facts
As you approach your colleague about his behavior, stick closely to the detailed facts. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language that will only elicit defensiveness. For example, don’t say, “Your style really irritates everyone on the team.” Instead lead with facts and be specific. It might sound like, “You often question the decisions that the team agreed on and when you do that it derails momentum, results in a lot of unnecessary work, and some are starting you think you don’t trust them.”
You might find that his behavior is triggered by a legitimate concern. For example, maybe he feels like he isn’t included in the original decision-making or that people don’t trust his experience. Should he surface a concern like that, validate it while also making it clear it needs to be handled better. “If you don’t feel like the team is consulting you appropriately, can you request we include you sooner in the process rather than challenging the decision after it has been made?”
Share Natural Consequences
Assume he isn’t fully aware of how his behavior affects others. Let him know what the consequences are when he is passive-aggressive, challenges direction, and interrupts people on the team. Share how those behaviors affect you, others, customers, work projects, etc. Give him a chance to see the impact of his behavior—to results, relationships, and his reputation.
Let him know how you expect to be treated in the future and how you expect him and everyone on the team to act so you can work in a positive and productive environment. Ask for his commitment. Encourage him to seek training, or maybe your company could provide it. You can also let him know about intended consequences that will occur if the behavior continues. Perhaps you’ll speak up again, perhaps you’ll get others involved, or perhaps you’ll have to file a complaint with HR.
Holding people accountable is one of the most challenging Crucial Conversations you will encounter. It puts you in a position of vulnerability and discomfort. And for most people our history confirms that we will do it poorly—we’ll either be too emotional, too harsh, or too timid. I hope these tips will help you enter the accountability conversation with more confidence and poise so you can preserve both results and relationships.
Best of luck,