April 24, 2021
Suggestions for Working with Passive Aggressive Teams
Working cross culturally can be both hilarious and incredibly frustrating. One of the best examples is the way those from Asia interact with each other and how they work with foreigners. I’m typically a hands off manager, empowering my people to do the best work they can while I remove obstacles to their great work. However, passive aggression can rear its ugly head due to many reasons, but more than anything else, I sincerely believe it is because people here are very polite and won’t say no or refuse to accept your business even if they don’t know what you need done.
There is a word for it in India: “juugaad”, which loosely translates to getting something done by any means necessary, and Indians in general are proud of this concept. I once worked at a company that had no products to sell. They had decent schematics of telecom equipment and we used their CAD drawings to build out a set of sales collateral for non-existent equipment, including all the features and attributes of the equipment specified by our tech team. When I asked about this, my boss said, “If we sell it, then we will figure out how to build it.”
Another tech team in a different firm was presented with a Marketing Requirements document that detailed the workings of an interactive widget we wanted to create. I met with the tech lead and discussed the project and asked him when it would be completed so that Marketing could begin to promote it and plan for its launch. He said, “Friday”. This was my first position here in India, so I expected a completed, tested project delivered, ready to launch that coming Friday. When Friday arrived, I contacted the lead to ask where the widget was, and he responded with, “We have a few questions before we start.” START? It was supposed to be done by then.
So here’s my tips for working with passive aggressive coworkers:
- Nail down EXACT dates and times for project milestones. When someone says Friday, I now know to ask, “Which Friday? This Friday? What time on Friday?” (This is now a joke to my coworkers who now expect this response from me.) You may need to send friendly reminder emails or visit them occasionally, gently reminding them of the deadlines and asking if they need any assistance or clarification in order to meet the date. You may want to see the work in progress to be sure they’re building to your specifications.
- Have team stakeholders sign each date/time they’ve agreed to. People are loathe to put a signature to any commitment and if you have several tasks that require dependencies on other departments delivering their portions of the work to be completed, you can be in project management hell very quickly as milestones slip due to the inaction or poor work delivered by other departments. You can refer to these signed documents when confronting them about missing commitments.
- Get Executive/Client buy-in to project milestones. If your reporting head/client does not support your program and and does not understand and agree to the amount of time you anticipate the project will take to execute, you will not have managed the expectations of senior management as best as you could. Ask for feedback on anything they consider unreasonable or if they have suggestions on how to shorten the cycle. The more they know and understand about the project and its complexities, along with your concerns where there may be delays, keeping a timely rhythm of communications with senior management will help escalate issues arising from other departments you are depending on to launch.
- Establish consequences for project delays. Make sure everyone understands the consequences. If there are no consequences for not meeting deadlines, and no recognition for actually doing so, what’s the point? I had a marketing assistant who was responsible for ensuring all equipment going to a show left Mumbai for Sao Paulo 120 days before the show dates. She didn’t. We had to pay $32,000 in fees to get our shipment out of customs and shipped to the show after the deadlines. Were there any consequences for losing $32,000 due to lack of planning properly? No. If there are no consequences for shoddy work sent at the last minute (what I call the “send and pray” method) or not completing it at all, this sends a very visible message that competency is not required.
- Ping team leaders regularly for status updates. Make them accountable. If people want to be promoted and actually get it, it should also come with more responsibility and accountability. Create a regular rhythm of communications with all team leaders to ensure all components of your project are coming together. Hold them accountable for the dates and milestones and be sure they are aware of the consequences of not working together to get the project completed. They become visible to others when they are held accountable. One thing I’ve found helpful is to ask to see the project so far, even if it’s still just a wire frame or an outline (this is a great way to see how far the project ACTUALLY is and not just what the team reports). The look on their faces, when you ask this question, is priceless when they haven’t accomplished a thing. It’s funny in the telling later, but not in the moment when you realize the project is off-track.
- If working across multiple shifts or time zones, meet regularly on all shift times so all involved staff are inconvenienced equally. It’s just fair. You shouldn’t be the only one to have to get up at 3 AM for a regularly scheduled conference call. When setting meetings, check everyone’s schedule to find to most convenient times for everyone involved.
- ENFORCE consequences and provide positive feedback for best performing staff. If people are allowed to do poor work or no work, there must be a visible consequence for this. If people have done great work, that needs to be made even more visible. When people come up to you congratulating you on the success, be sure to push it back to those on your team that made it happen. If you do this often, more people will love working with you.
- Celebrate all major project milestones and report back to team stakeholders, executives and clients. When this project finally launches, hopefully it will be a resounding success. During the process, especially a long process, keep encouraging your team as they make progress. A little pat on the back or a hand-written note can make all the difference to someone.
It’s probably the toughest aspect of management (and relationships!) — dealing with passive aggressive people. Finding the “bait” that makes a passive aggressive person or team produce takes experimentation, but once you find it, either fear, coercion, baked goods, kudos, whatever… you’ll be much more successful in getting your projects accomplished.
Do you have tips on dealing with passive aggression? Please share in the comments below.