I once had a boss who would unpack a cigarette in front of me in his boardroom. Just the one. They weren't on offer (which was just as well, as I didn't indulge). If I had 'done good' on a particular project, he would light up and the conversation would flow accordingly. If I hadn't, in his view, it would stay resolutely unlit. At least I knew where I stood. Though I still didn't get offered a smoke. That was in the 1980s but it seems such passive aggressive moves are still very much around. Call it bullying in another form?
One just has to think of the esteemed Jacob Rees-Mogg's letter sent round to the desks of so-called errant civil servants for having the sense to work from home on a particular day due to the still prevalent pandemic. In its so-called classic form, passive aggression is described as a pattern of 'indirectly' expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them, leading to a disconnect between what the person who exhibits such behaviour says and what he or she does.
Someone who engages in passive-aggressive activity might appear to agree, even enthusiastically, with a suggestion but then rather than complying, they fail to follow through with a deadline. I recall one time, off the phone from the same boss – lit or unlit, who knows – and suggesting strongly to a colleague they should drop what they were doing to comply with the executive request to do a task as a matter of extreme urgency. He said 'okay', then put his number tens up on a desk and lit a cigar. I kind of admired him but, I guess, it wasn't doing his career prospects any good.
The Rees-Mogg fiasco came to mind after Edinburgh-based high performance leadership coach Fiona Gifford brought to my attention the many ways such behaviour is often used with impunity in organisations. Fiona tells me how she remembers a c-suite exec who would stand near the lifts and call a cheery 'Good Morning' to latecomers. Who could forget the revelation in the mid 2000s of the HBOS branch managers who awarded a cabbage to staff who did not meet perceived sales targets. I suppose one could take it home and boil it.
Medical News Today describes passive aggression as a type of 'concealed' behaviour with anger and other forms of distress not openly acknowledged. Often involving inaction rather than action, a person engaged in overt aggression might attend a gathering and be rude and hostile. The passive aggressive might avoid the gathering or attend and give others the silent treatment, in revenge for a perceived slight.
Of the Rees-Mogg fiasco, Fiona points out that, 'unbelievably', once his actions were exposed, he compounded them with a statement through a spokesperson rather than stepping up to his own accountability. This and the likes of the HBOS example represent behaviour that's both infantile and cowardly, indicating a complete lack of competence.
Quoting British-American psychologist, John Amaechi OBE: 'Your culture is defined by the worst behaviour you tolerate', as he reminds us all that the most unlikely of people in the most improbable of circumstances can become extraordinary; others can experience equally ground-breaking personal and organisational success. Without having to indulge in negative passive-aggression.
Passive-aggression can also appear to be bullying in another form, with the NHS pointing out how it can involve much more subtle behaviour. Like excluding and ignoring people and their contribution; overloading people with work; spreading malicious rumours; unfair treatment; picking on or regularly undermining someone; and denying someone's training or promotion opportunities. That's quite a list. The website puts the question: what can I do?
Well, first of all, one shouldn't be ashamed to tell people what's going on. You need to let people know what's happening so they can help you. By sharing your experiences, you may discover that it's happening to others. Speak to someone about how you might deal with the problem informally: employee representative, trade union official. HR department, manager or supervisor.
Mind you, one of those might be the very person who's causing you problems in the first place. So, step carefully but above all, stay calm and recognise that criticism or personal remarks are not connected to your abilities. They reflect the bully's own weaknesses and are meant to intimidate and control. Do not be tempted to explain your behaviour: ask them to explain theirs. Also keep a diary, make a formal complaint as the next step and do not rule out legal action.
To conclude, surely it's the case that a culture defined by such negative action is not to be tolerated? Talented and experienced people will leave for somewhere they are both respected and treated as adults. Those who happened to be leaders at work should always remember they are the architects of culture and that words and deeds matter deeply. In essence, we get the culture we deserve. For help there's Acas, Citizens Advice, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. If it has a Rees-Mogg chairing a panel, I guess think again.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'