Common Hostility in the Workplace, Part I

When you are in a conflict with someone the best thing to do is go talk to the person. You want to see if you can reach some sort of resolution with which both of you can live.

For some reason, many people believe that if someone’s actions are causing them anger and rage at work, it is dangerous to for them to address the aggravating individual.  This is especially true if that aggravating individual is your boss.  We tell ourselves, “I will grit my teeth and bear it.”  The attempt to keep the conflict hidden and hold our anger inside generally fails miserably.  The hostility is not well hidden.  It comes out in a form of behavior knows as passive aggressive behavior or don’t get mad, get even behavior.  This is by far the most common form of hostility in the work place.

Passive Aggressive behavior is a subtitle form of anger.  The hostility comes out in annoying behaviors such as forgetting to do important tasks, calling in sick at strategic times, doing exactly what the boss said in spite of knowing that whatever the boss said was not what the boss meant, making mistakes, and so on.  This type of behavior is called passive aggressive. Passive because the mistakes are common and can be easily explained away as honest errors. Aggressive because behind the annoying acts hides a hostile purpose (rage) which is to get even with the aggravating person for something they did (and  have probably forgotten about long ago) or did not do.  Dealing with passive aggressive behavior from another person is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

Passive aggressive behavior is a popular strategy simply because it enables a person to attack without looking hostile. This is where a person who has some problem issue with you avoids addressing the issue but acts in ways that are purposefully designed to aggravate you.  Your state of exasperation (rage) levels the playing field for them and provides a small sense satisfaction. Here are a few true stories that illustrate passive aggressive behavior in action.

Alice Trent was the first female supervisor in a department of six. Whenever the manager held a staff meeting with his supervisors, he would ask Alice to go get coffee and donuts for everyone. She was furious about this and found it demeaning. This was a new promotion and really, in the scheme of things, getting coffee was a minor issue. So, rather than confront her new boss and tell him how the coffee and donuts routine made her feel, Alice said nothing. She was, however, seething inside.

One day, Alice brought a small bottle of vinegar to work and whenever her boss asked her to get coffee, she spilled a little vinegar into the cup.  The boss’s reaction was to declare at every staff meeting after Alice brought the coffee, “Gee Alice, you make one lousy cup of coffee. Perhaps you should take a cooking lesson in how to make coffee.”  Although she felt happily justified in what she was doing, her actions did not solve her problem.

William Vargas was a hard-working international peace negotiator whose travel assignments made up more than 70% of his job. His wife Maria was about to deliver twins so he asked his boss for a reduced travel schedule during her final month.  The boss reminded William that his job included a heavy travel schedule. He knew that when he was hired. The boss made it abundantly clear that she did not care what was going on in William’s private life.  The State Department was depending on him to fulfill his travel responsibilities and she was going to insure that he did so. In the final month of his wife’s pregnancy, William misplaced his passport. He had to wait three weeks for a new one to be issued. During that time, he was unable to travel so he was at home for his wife’s delivery.

Freddie Wilson was a young kid working on an assembly line. The union contract specified that overtime is voluntary. Production in the area is running well behind current needs. The foreman asks Freddie if he would be willing to work overtime on the weekend to help catch up. Freddie had other plans, so he respectfully declined the foreman’s   request.  The foreman, in front of all Freddie’s peers, manipulatively insisted that he come in by saying, “Everyone else will be here, Freddie. You know how important it is to be a team player. You’re not going to let us down, are you Freddie?”  (This verbal strategy is known as the guilt trip.).

Freddie felt exploited and angry. He mumbled his unwilling agreement. On Saturday morning, bright and early, Freddie took his place on the line, carefully making sure that everything he put together had some sort of error in it. At the end of the shift, nothing made that day passed quality control. Freddie is delighted when he hears the foreman getting chewed out by the plant manager. “You had an entire crew here at time and one-half and not one item passed quality control!  You stupid idiot!”

The target of the passive aggressive behavior, the foreman, doesn’t really understand what actually happened. Therefore, the frustration of both parties will continue. The foreman will again use manipulative tactics when requesting overtime and the kid, Freddie, will once again make junk. Freddie has not learned to stand his ground and the boss has not learned to be honest but respectful and straightforward with his crew members.

When one party attempts to stand their ground and the other party chooses to belittle or disregard the concerns of the other, retaliation often comes in the form of a don’t-get-mad-get-even reaction.

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