The Passive-Aggressive Team: Canada’s most common dysfunctional team

September 1, 2012

The Passive-Aggressive Team: Canada’s most common dysfunctional team

By Liane Davey, Vice President, Global Solutions – Team Effectiveness, Knightsbridge Capital Human Solutions

Bleeding Back Team

It has always been difficult for me to understand the popularity of reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother. If Canadians want to witness teams of people being crippled by malice, manipulation, duplicity and rampant narcissism, they need only look to their places of work.

Passive-aggressive behavior is rampant among Canadian workers. Especially among teams that are designed to create critical masses of creativity and productivity, it has reached near epidemic proportions.

In a recent survey by Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions, nearly three out of four respondents identified passive-aggressive behavior as a problem with teams in their organization. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents identified it as a significant, even pervasive problem. Of all the problematic team dynamics that can exist, this is easily the most prevalent, and in many cases the most destructive.

How does passive-aggressive behavior manifest in work teams?

These are teams where individual members appear cooperative, even harmonious when in the boardroom. Outside the group dynamic, however, these teams have the potential to degenerate into smaller groups of distrustful, obstructive, gossipy employees.

This is a team full of backstabbers. As a result, I have come to call them the “Bleeding Back Team.”

Bleeding Back teams can be hard to spot. Rather than overtly opposing or obstructing, the most insidious Bleeding Back employees either quietly or passively support team initiatives, only to obstruct progress by rehashing decisions, re-opening old debates or simply refusing to implement the plan they agreed to in the boardroom.

A professional services team I worked with provided me with one of the most vivid pictures of the Bleeding Back dynamic. One prominent member of this team, who opposed the direction of the team leader, worked quietly through back channels to cultivate opposition. At one point, she convinced team members they would be sidelined by a new strategy, essentially declared redundant by their own planning. This convinced the team members the leader was out to get them, and that they were essentially planning their own demise. The leader was unable to address the growing dissent because it was all being done outside of the team. Resistance burned in this team like an insidious root fire, gaining momentum until it reached the surface and scorched everyone involved.

Why would someone encourage the Bleeding Back dynamic?

Sometimes, the back stabbers are afraid of change that may be implied in a team project, or they are simply too selfish to share success with other team members. In some instances, individuals undermine teams because they believe it is impossible to get ahead when you share credit with a team. Other times, the passive-aggressive behavior at work is an extension of a team member’s broader problem with all the relationships in their lives. In other words, they undermine relationships with co-workers in the same way they do with friends and family. 

Defusing the mayhem of the Bleeding Back team

One of the greatest crimes committed by Bleeding Back teams is that they give conflict a bad name. Conflict can be a healthy process. It can produce better solutions, spark creativity and innovation, anticipate flaws in logic or design, and test ideas to ensure greater success. But that can only happen when the conflict is conducted out in the open, as a deliberate stage of the team process. When conflict occurs outside the team, there is only a destructive intent. Far too often, the architects of the Bleeding Back team conflict are very successful in achieving their goals, which is complete dysfunction.

Defusing the mayhem of the Bleeding Back team is a simple matter, but that does not mean it is easy. The missing ingredient in this and other toxic teams is a commitment to personal responsibility. Far too often when I work with toxic teams, I hear people focus all of their energies on complaints about others on their teams. They think the leader is clueless; their teammates don’t listen or can’t express themselves clearly. One of the biggest problems with toxic teams is that individuals always think that someone else is the cause of the dysfunction. They rarely look critically at their own behavior.

The reality is that any individual who really wants to change an unhealthy situation will have to take responsibility for all that they have done to contribute to the problem. That is why I often tell people that although the old adage tells us there is no ‘I’ in team, there is a “you.” Even if you are not the instigator on the Bleeding Back team, you are likely a victim or a not-so-innocent bystander who knows exactly what’s going on but has done nothing to address the problem.

You don’t have to be the team leader to change the fate of your team. Focus on issues rather than personalities. Express your concerns clearly, and help ensure other voices get heard. If you have a concern about the way things are going, speak up at the boardroom table. The great thing about the team dynamic is that any individual member can be the catalyst for positive change.

More and more work is being done in teams. The good news is that a healthy team is a proven model for success. But it requires a commitment by all of the team members to engaging directly with each other. Don’t put up with toxic, passive-aggressive behavior. Put away your knives and deal with team issues head on.

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