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Passive-aggressive bitterness is a dysfunctional form of deception that distracts from the team’s purposes and goals. I use the word deception because everyone else is deceived into thinking the shift in attitude or tone has nothing to do with the small offense that has grown in the mind of the offender. Passive-aggressive behavior that hides conflict and turns into bitterness is like a virus in a line of code. It’s hidden from plain sight while it corrupts the team dynamic. Like a computer owner, the team should use the anti-virus software of an attitude to never leave any small offense to chance.
It’s sometimes nice to overlook a minor offense but even that leaves the health of the team dynamic to chance. A passive approach becomes passive aggressive when the person who has hurt feelings has difficulty letting go of the offense begins to subtly retaliate against the offender. That retaliation can look like a shift in support, attitude, and effort. Things begin to feel different and the source of the difference is not obvious to anyone but the passive-aggressive person. Passivity has an easier path that may get us home at night without a hard talk but it’s at the risk of a very hard feeling developing over time.
Every team must choose to either be passive about conflict or to take a more direct approach. The culture of every team is obvious after the first big blow up. What does the team do after the dust settles? Do they follow up and talk about the impact of what just happened? Or do they act like nothing ever happened? I find the direct approach may feel worse in the short term but it saves time and ultimately hurt feelings over the long term. This is because a quick and direct conversation can clear up a small misunderstanding of intention or tone. This frees the minds and hearts of everyone involved to focus on the tasks that move the team forward rather than the drama of unresolved conflict.