Rogues’ Gallery, Part II: Mr. Passive-Aggressive

Black Friday!  Unlike many Americans, I do not typically engage in the mercantile free-for-all that has come to characterize the day after Thanksgiving.  I prefer to sit back, enjoy my leftovers and another tryptophan-induced coma, and just marvel at the spectacle of it all.

My wife accuses  me of being passive-aggressive when it comes to shopping.  Admittedly, my cooperation on shopping trips may be *somewhat* less then total.  Maybe it is hard for me to get excited about saving money that I never wanted to spend in the first place!  Far too many of our colleagues fall into that “hostile cooperation” trap on the job, which is what leads me to the second installment of my ongoing series The Rogues’ Gallery – Introducing Mr. Passive-Aggressive!

Passive-aggressive (PA) behavior in the workplace is an exceptionally easy pattern to adopt.  Especially when that workplace revolves around children!  Because, in effect, PA colleagues are not modeling behavior for the students – they are allowing the students to model behavior for them!  That might seem harsh, but consider the truly insidious nature of PA behavior on our goal of boosting student achievement:

Mr. (or Ms.) PA is dark when we need optimism, vague when we need certainty, and evades responsibility just when we need leaders to take a stand for accountability.  Yet the veneer of professionalism is implied with everything that they say and do, just enough to get them off the hook for whatever might come there way in terms of consequences.  These experts of insinuation and guilt-trips are excellent at manipulating language.  Then they wield their influence in a manner that can counter everything you attempt to do as an instructional leader.  While The Complainer (discussed in RG, Pt 1) tears your efforts down – at least he/she does so to your face!  Mr. PA does it with a smile on his face, and often behind your back!  People like this can be truly poisonous to your efforts at changing institutional culture, and they need to be dealt with appropriately.

Dr. Carl Robinson’s article from corporate America is enlightening:

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.

PA’s are almost always on the defensive.  At the core of a PA personality is insecurity and fear, so whenever a PA feels threatened – which is often – he or she will act out in this manner.  When confronted, a PA will try to hedge away from blame also. Robinson notes that –

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.

Alleviating the fears and needs for defense up front are key to neutralizing a PA threat to your educational leadership.  Perhaps this means opening with a mea culpa for your role in whatever element of the toxic culture helped make your PA so defensive.  In their book Leadership on the Line (2002) Ronald A. Heifitz and Marty Linsky do an excellent job of outlining the approach needed to navigate this minefield.  “Acknowledging Their Loss” is a key step.  Change is always going to make some people uncomfortable, and might even require some measure of sacrifice.  Instructional leaders cannot act as if they are oblivious to the discomfort.  It needs to be noted, mentioned, perhaps even grieved for.  The staff for the most part will appreciate the steps taken to acknowledge the hesitation or resistance present regarding a change.  Humanizing yourself as a leader is valuable, and it begins with seeing the perceived flaws and failings of our colleagues as having very human roots.

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2 Comments

Filed under School Leadership

2 responses to “Rogues’ Gallery, Part II: Mr. Passive-Aggressive

  1. I love your writing! It’s fun to read.

    I agree with what you’re saying.

    I like the end of this entry where you mention the need for leaders to humanize themselves. When a leader is encountering A LOT of “PA’s”…I think that leader needs to do some reflecting. Why are people being PA??

    I will read more of your entries; I like this.

  2. Thanks – it’s important for instructional leaders to connect with their staff members. If no one wants to follow a leader, then how much of a leader are they?? A drum major without a band is just a fool dancin’ on a football field!

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