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The way that employees communicate has changed significantly as companies migrated to remote work during the pandemic. Online culture became the norm and companies were forced to rethink how to maintain employee engagement and community. However, the sudden shift from in-person interactions to online communication has led to numerous issues, including an increase in passive aggression. In fact, research conducted by my company Go1 shows that seven out of ten Americans are experiencing higher levels of passive aggression in the workplace compared to before the pandemic.
Passive aggression’s destructive power
Over the past year, there have been several employee-driven movements in the corporate world. “Quiet Quitting” has been gaining popularity and can be linked to the rise of passive aggression in the workplace.
Toxic behaviors like passive aggression can not only lead to turnover but can also create a culture where employees feel unmotivated. This has also had further impacts on employees’ attitudes and led to a decrease in productivity. So much so, that 71% of employees blame passive aggression for their lack of effort at work. If left unchecked, these behaviors can create a negative feedback loop that further harms the company’s culture and workforce.
To build a healthy culture and maintain employee engagement, it is important to break this cycle. Here are four key tips to help combat passive aggression and transform toxic workplaces back into healthy ones.
1. Identify the Cause
Workplace passive aggression can manifest itself through a number of different behaviors, such as sarcasm, giving someone the silent treatment, or spreading gossip. Rather than simply focusing on the negative behaviors, it is important to ask why these behaviors are occurring in the first place.
Reflect on any recent organizational changes or major projects that may have caused tension or conflict in the workplace. Additionally, consider any personal factors that individuals may be experiencing outside of work that are affecting their behavior. Performance reviews and exit interviews are great ways to gather this information.
Was there a ‘bad’ manager who practiced favoritism? Did your company produce an always-on culture that blurred work-life balance?
Once the root cause of passive aggression has been determined, collaboration with different departments can help develop solutions that address the specific underlying cause. For example, this may involve providing leadership training for the manager who is not treating their colleagues equally or implementing an updated PTO policy to help employees unplug and recharge while setting boundaries.
2. Look Into Soft Skills Training
More than half of Americans revealed passive-aggressive coworkers would benefit from appropriate soft skills training. Educating your workplace on how to improve their communication, time management and problem-solving skills is the key to preventing passive-aggressive behaviors before they happen.
In 2022, major tech companies made headlines for their handling of difficult news such as layoffs. Communication skills training could have played a role in teaching both managers and employees how to voice their concerns and handle these difficult conversations without being passive-aggressive. The University of California, Berkeley recently introduced a course that focuses on role-playing these exact conversations which have already seen great results. Many of the students who reported being conflict-avoidant before taking the course now believe practicing these conversations led to building trust and intimacy.
For workplaces looking to reduce passive aggression in the workplace, it is important to create a culture of trust. Companies with high levels of trust typically have higher productivity and avoid micromanagement. This allows managers to trust that employees know how to prioritize their tasks, and employees to trust that managers know how to delegate tasks effectively to prevent burnout.
3. Create An Open Line of Communication with HR Specialists
It is crucial for employees to feel comfortable and confident communicating openly with HR leaders within their company. These individuals have an influence on a company’s culture and ways of working — they can implement and share resources to reduce passive-aggressive behavior and in turn, create healthier work environments.
One way to implement this change is to increase the frequency of check-ins with HR. The specific interval at which these check-ins occur (e.g. quarterly or biannual) will depend on the size of your company. Larger companies may require more frequent check-ins, while a smaller company may be able to hold them less often.
Having these check-ins provide more opportunities for employees to voice any concerns and frustrations directly to HR, rather than harboring negative feelings or expressing them indirectly through passive-aggressive behavior.
HR leaders can also provide guidance and support to employees on communicating effectively and assertively, which can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts that can lead to passive aggression.
4. Be Accountable and Reflect on Your Own Behavior
It is common for people to engage in passive-aggressive behavior out of frustration, so the fact that nearly 70% of Americans admit to being passive-aggressive should not come as a surprise. Entrepreneurs are not immune to passive aggression, but by holding yourself accountable and taking responsibility for your actions, you can set a positive example for others to follow.
You don’t have to make a big announcement every time you behave passive-aggressively. Instead, you can show accountability by simply acknowledging to the person on the receiving end of your behavior that you were reacting out of emotion. This could be as simple as sending them a direct message apologizing for your behavior and reiterating that you’ll communicate better in the future. This simple gesture can go a long way in building trust and improving communication within your team — motivating others to follow suit and express their thoughts and feelings directly.
As business leaders, it’s important to recognize the impact your work culture can have on your team and your bottom line. Especially considering toxic work cultures can cost businesses more than $44 billion each year, with one in five employees leaving due to this issue.