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I'm not Passive Aggressive!

I remember when I recognized ‘passive aggressive’ behavior for the first time.

I was working with a great relationship person. They weren’t so good at the follow up and doing what they said they would – essential for building trust – and when I challenged them on this they came at me, eyes blazing full of aggression with the ‘threat’ of physical violence. To say I was shocked was an understatement, as I’d approached with what I believed was a reasonable level of sensitivity.

Since then I’ve realized the prevalence of passive aggressive behavior, and thought deeply about its impact on those who demonstrate it as well as those they interact with. This piece is meant to spark a conversation: for those of us who have to deal with this behavior, and in the hope that some may recognize they have this tendency. I’m not a psychologist, but do feel qualified to comment on something I observe all too regularly.

“I’m not Passive Aggressive”

I’d be stunned if many people reading this admit to being passive aggressive. That’s the point, I believe it’s subconscious. No one wants to be seen as passive or particularly aggressive, so they ‘hide’ away from it, in denial. So, read with an open mind…

What is it?


Most people want to be seen as good with people, to build relationships and create connections. Business, and life, is built upon relationships. You avoid conflict and try to work with others.

However, everyone loves a winner. And when things don’t go your way, or someone challenges you it can trigger your will to win. The ‘fight’ part of your ‘fight or flight’ programming shows itself.

When you’ve been working to build a relationship warmly and positively this can be quite a shock to the other party. And it can instantly destroy any trust you have built.

It’s worth noting that those with low inner confidence or high insecurity are more easily triggered to aggression. This insecurity drives their need to ‘prove’ they are strong, worthy. If you want to see the opposite, in my experience those servicemen and women with combat experience often demonstrate inner confidence best. They have been through some of the toughest situations imaginable, and understand that this is just business. The calm they exude is an example to us all.

When does it show itself?

The most common area of business I’ve seen it is in negotiations. For many years I’ve consulted with and trained leaders across all industries at the highest level and the polarization of approach is clear to see. Most see themselves as warm and collaborative negotiators, building creative solutions. However, in action their negotiations may start warmly, but invariably come down to price; and aggression (or concession) ensues.

What are the implications?

It’s hard to negotiate collaboratively at a high level. It’s much easier to demand investment and fight for a cost saving than build a potentially complex value creating solution. Many of the business relationships I see are fundamentally transactional. The seller might kid themselves that they have a partnership, but they rarely have.

In a recent exercise with a leading CPG manufacturer we assessed the relationship they and their retailer desired. They wanted much more collaboration. The retailer was just after the best cost and least commitment.

This mismatch often reflects the perception of power balance, and leads to mistrust and frustration. Rarely do both parties approach negotiations with open intentions and so this illusion, and the ensuing frustration, continues. In another recent example the most senior people involved let their egos take over and many millions of dollars in value were destroyed.


What to do?

If a transactional relationship works, and there are few opportunities or little desire for value creation, then that’s fine.

However, if you want to create value it takes a very different mindset from both sides. Firstly, a recognition of the current situation. Then a desire to change things. Both must commit to defining the relationship and their real goals. They must work to build trust over time by doing what they promise.

And of course, those passive aggressive tendencies must be held in check. A high level of self-control will be required. When a perceived slight is detected the desire to fight back must be resisted. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it, but this has to come from a place of listening.

If you can achieve this then the fun can begin. Life is not win/lose, good/evil, it’s a rich spectrum of color. And in exploring this we can create all kinds of collaborative solutions (and value). At the end of the day business is about creating value together, often through relationships. So, focus on understanding rather than trying to prove your point.


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