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We have a general reorganization of my department going on at the moment and I have one staff member in particular who is being difficult about the process.

A bit of background... This person has always been a bit passive-aggressive toward me as I was given the job she wanted when I first started at the organization. This person also sometimes provokes trouble within the department and said trouble has not gone unnoticed by other areas.

With the reorganization, this person knows what needs to be done yet expects me to essentially babysit her and tell her exactly what to do every minute of the day. I will admit that I am new to supervising others and have been getting some support from upper management, but nothing beats hands on experience.

Does anyone have any strategies for dealing with passive aggressive staff members?

  • What is the form of "support from upper management" are you getting? Do you evaluate this person's performance? Can you recommend a replacement? This person needs to put on the big kid's pants and get things done within established expectations or she has to go. – user8365 Oct 9 '14 at 17:27
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    What specifically is passive aggressive about her behavior? What you're describing doesn't seem to be passive aggressive so much as it is just being a disgruntled employee. – corsiKa Oct 9 '14 at 19:25
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For general management advice, I recommend reading the AskAManager blog. And that will give some more specific advice for dealing with someone who is being passive-aggressive.

Using some of her terminology, I would find a specific action that needs correction, such as the one where she needs babysitting, and speak to her something like this:

You: I've given you an outline of what you need to be doing each day, and will provide more specific guidelines as appropriate. But I need you to be working more independently of me, using these guidelines to do your work. Are you able to do that?

Generally, the way that is asked will make them say yes. But if that yes becomes a no, or they actually say no, then the next step is something like one of these:

You: you've said that you were able to do independent work, but you're still coming to me every half hour for guidance. What do you need to be able to work independently?

You: I need someone who can work independently in this position. Since you aren't able to work independently, perhaps this job isn't appropriate for you. We need to consider the next steps in this case.

Don't be afraid to use a PIP. Always give clear direction, and give feedback (both good and bad) immediately. (In general, give praise publicly, correction privately.) When someone is not doing what they need to be doing, tell them what you need from them, and ask if they can do that. Allow them to ask questions, but don't allow them to continue the inappropriate behavior without consequences. Let them know when they're doing a good job!

When you're providing guidance, be specific. Don't say "write this better." Say, "You're using passive voice and writing 3 pages when we're looking for at most 2 paragraphs. Please write this as if it were a press release: short and direct."

So, provide specifics of what you need, and hold her accountable when she doesn't provide it.

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    And make sure to give the direction in writing and document any meetings you have with her about performance. You are going to need this if you put her on a PIP (Personal Improvement Plan or steps we have to officially take before we can fire you for cause). – HLGEM Oct 9 '14 at 19:29
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I run an online community of managers called Resolve where we share and learn from each other's experiences. This question has come up and here is a response from one of our community members, Cheryl Warner.

I once had an employee morph from friendly and collaborative to angry and irritable almost overnight. Other employees were targets for the anger.

I intervened for two reasons:

Reason 1: The sudden insurgence of negative emotion was definitely throwing off my team’s rhythm. No one signed up for abuse. Time to put company values into actions.

Reason 2: My employee was obviously not okay.

I approached the conversation with empathy while also stating the obvious facts with details. “I can see you are upset. Here are some examples. Rather than triage each situation, would you be amenable to discussing what might be the root cause? I would love for you to be a content, engaged member of the team again. Right now, you aren’t interacting with team/company values.”

And then sit with the awkward silence. Let them think it or feel it through (this will seem like an eternity).

Paths that might be taken:

Path A: Employee collapses in a heap and tells you they are getting divorced. (Happened in my scenario). I empathize, and without seeming too callous, discuss the strategy of keeping a strong boundary between work and home life for a while. “When you walk into the building, you are free of the outside influences, and can focus on being the wonderful colleague you can be. We are supportive of you, and anticipate your respect in return. I support whatever time off you may need.”

Path B: Employee acknowledges there is a problem, and insists they will change (again). Since you know they have promised this before, time to ask about accountability. “Since we both understand this situation has serious consequences, and you have tried to modify your behavior without success, what has changed? What will you be doing differently? How are you holding yourself accountable? As there are serious consequences to these actions continuing, the company and I are here to help in any way we can.”

You may find that your employee turns around and while embarrassed, is thankful the company supported them through a difficult time. Other employees will also notice these company values in action.

Or you may find the employee cannot recover. The question is how long you will allow them to throw off the team’s dynamics? Their poor behavior will wreak havoc with your company culture. Nip it.

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