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The way employees communicate has changed dramatically as companies migrated to remote work during the pandemic. Online culture has become the norm and companies have been forced to rethink how to maintain employee engagement and community. However, the sudden shift from in-person interactions to online communication has led to many problems, including an increase in passive-aggressiveness. In fact, research by my company Go1 shows that seven out of ten Americans experience higher levels of passive aggression in the workplace compared to before the pandemic.
The destructive power of passive aggression
Over the past year, there have been several employee-led movements in the corporate world. “Quiet quitting” is growing in popularity and may be linked to the rise of passive aggression in the workplace.
Toxic behaviors like passive aggression can not only lead to turnover, but also create a culture in which employees feel unmotivated. It also had other repercussions on employee attitudes and led to lower productivity. So much so that 71% of employees blame passive aggression for their lack of effort at work. If left unchecked, these behaviors can create a negative feedback loop that further harms the company’s culture and workforce.
To build a healthy culture and maintain employee engagement, it’s important to break this cycle. Here are four key tips to help combat passive aggression and turn toxic workplaces into healthy workplaces.
Related: The 4 Most Toxic People at Work and How to Deal With Them
1. Identify the cause
Passive aggression in the workplace can manifest itself in a number of different behaviors, such as sarcasm, silently treating someone, or spreading gossip. Rather than just focusing on negative behaviors, it’s important to ask why these behaviors are happening in the first place.
Think about recent organizational changes or major projects that may have caused tension or conflict in the workplace. Additionally, consider any personal factors that individuals may encounter outside of work that affect their behavior. Performance reviews and exit interviews are great ways to gather this information.
Was there a “bad” manager who practiced favoritism? Has your company created a permanent culture that has blurred work-life balance?
Once the root cause of passive aggression has been determined, working with different departments can help develop solutions that address the specific underlying cause. For example, this may involve providing leadership training to the manager who does not treat co-workers equally or implementing an updated PTO policy to help employees disconnect and re-energize while setting limits.
2. Examine Soft Skills Training
More than half of Americans revealed that passive-aggressive colleagues would benefit from proper training in soft skills. Educating your workplace on how to improve their communication, time management, and problem-solving skills is key to preventing passive-aggressive behavior before it happens.
In 2022, big tech companies made headlines for their handling of tough news like layoffs. Communication skills training could have played a role in teaching managers and employees how to voice their concerns and handle those difficult conversations without being passive-aggressive. The University of California, Berkeley recently introduced a course that focuses on role-playing those exact conversations that have already yielded great results. Many students who said they avoided conflict before taking the course now believe that practicing these conversations has helped build trust and intimacy.
For workplaces looking to reduce passive aggression in the workplace, creating a culture of trust is important. Companies with high levels of trust generally have higher productivity and avoid micromanagement. This allows managers to trust that employees know how to prioritize their tasks, and employees to trust that managers know how to delegate tasks effectively to avoid burnout.
Related: 8 Things You Can Do When You Have A Toxic Boss | Ilvate
3. Create an open line of communication with HR specialists
It is essential that employees feel comfortable and confident in communicating openly with their company’s HR managers. These people influence a company’s culture and ways of working – they can implement and share resources to reduce passive-aggressive behaviors and, in turn, create healthier work environments.
One way to implement this change is to increase the frequency of HR check-ins. The specific interval at which these checks take place (eg quarterly or semi-annually) will depend on the size of your business. Larger businesses may require more frequent check-ins, while a smaller business may be able to schedule them less often.
Having these checks in provides more opportunities for employees to express their concerns and frustrations directly to HR, rather than harboring negative feelings or expressing them indirectly through passive-aggressive behavior.
HR managers can also provide guidance and support for employees to communicate effectively and assertively, which can help prevent misunderstandings and conflict that can lead to passive aggression.
4. Be responsible and reflect on your own behavior
It’s common for people to engage in passive-aggressive behavior out of frustration, so the fact that nearly 70% of Americans admit to being passive-aggressive should come as no surprise. Entrepreneurs aren’t immune to passive aggression, but by holding yourself accountable and taking responsibility for your actions, you can set a positive example for others to follow.
Related: Why You Should Avoid Hiring This Potentially Toxic Rockstar
You don’t have to make a big announcement every time you behave passive-aggressively. Instead, you can show your responsibility by simply acknowledging to the person experiencing your behavior that you were reacting out of emotion. It could be as simple as sending them a direct message apologizing for your behavior and reiterating that you will communicate better in the future. This simple gesture can go a long way in building trust and improving communication within your team, motivating others to follow suit and speak their thoughts and feelings directly.
As business leaders, it’s important to recognize the impact your work culture can have on your team and your bottom line. Especially when you consider that toxic work cultures can cost companies more than $44 billion every year, with one in five employees leaving because of the problem.
Marc Havercroft is president of online learning solutions company Go1.
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