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When "Nice" Isn't Nice

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"But he's such a nice guy."

I know you've heard someone say that recently about someone they work with. You've undoubtedly said it too.

What preceded that "But...?" I bet it was something about that person's passive aggressive behavior. Our culture is full of this kind of behavior -- in both our personal and professional lives.

Imagine it. Ed promised that he'd be on time for your team's weekly meeting, even though he's been late the last three meetings for various reasons. You guessed it! Ed showed up fifteen minutes late. Again.

Rather than being apologetic, he explains to the team that he "couldn't help it" because Billy had the flu and had to be dropped off at a different daycare. He lamented, "I'm sorry but hey, the kid is only 4. I couldn't just leave him at home."

The team is disappointed and ticked. You can tell by their body language and you can read it on their faces. Does anyone say anything however? No. After all, a 4-year-old can't be left home alone. You can't argue with that. And Ed is "such a nice guy."

Bingo. An example of classic passive-aggressive behavior. Things (...like meeting ground rules) are sabotaged by the passive-aggressive and it is somehow never his or her fault. They express their true, negative feelings, but in a passive, indirect -- and often hurtful -- way.

A really good passive-aggressive is very "slippery," according to Dr. Tony Fiore. They're slippery with excuses, justifications or alternative reasons for why things go awry. At first glance, they may appear to be caring and considerate, but their actions may turn out otherwise.

Sometimes the behavior isn't overt. Instead it shows up in their words. Sarcasm is often a tool of a passive-aggressive person.

Recognize these?

  • Talking behind the back of a co-worker instead of talking directly to them about concerns.
  • Using labels like on the surface appear playful, but they carry an edge. There's a subtle hidden message in the name calling...and everyone knows it.
  • Exaggerating and whining about someone's faults, but acting nice to their face.

One thing that makes dealing with passive-aggressives so tough is that you're often left wondering, "Is Ellen really devious and underhanded? Or is just my imagination? Is it me, and not Ellen?"

What can you do if you have a passive-aggressive on your team? Two tips:

  • Look for patterns of behavior. Being late for one meeting isn't passive aggression. Being late for four in a row and none were her fault...hmmm.
  • Deal with it directly and respectfully. Explain what you've observed, what you're starting to think, and ask for their reaction.

"Nice" isn't nice if it drives honesty and the truth underground and keeps healthy dialogue from happening. Think twice before using the label "nice" about someone. Make sure "nice" means nice.


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