The Root Cause of Passive-Aggressive Teams

If you’re visiting someone’s home in Kyoto, Japan, and they offer you a rice dish called bubuzuke, they’re not inviting you to dine with them. They’re politely letting you know you’ve overstayed your welcome.

The subtle social cue isn’t immediately apparent to those who weren’t raised in Kyoto — it certainly wasn’t to me when I lived there years ago. But to Kyoto residents who share a high-context relationship, the message is quite direct. 

Many of our clients describe their culture as passive-aggressive because they see people smiling and agreeing in meetings but then not taking action in service of the decision that’s just been made. This is not because people are mean but because they want to be nice but lack tools, like offering bubuzuke, that preserve a relationship while delivering a tough message. In other words they lack high-context relationships. 

When people don’t share a high-context relationship, they don’t have a clear sense of what is safe to say or do around the other person. They may fear that being direct will damage that relationship. Instead of speaking their minds or expressing their disagreement openly, they will resort to not communicating at all — this is the root of passive-aggressive communication.  

In his book Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes , Ian Leslie writes “A culture that tacitly prohibits disagreement makes their organization more vulnerable to petty office politics, errors of judgment and abuses of power.” 

When a high-context culture is established within an organization, team members share the language and confidence to have direct and productive conflict. Even more importantly, they feel invited to speak openly.

Productive, creative cultures based around high-context relationships can look vastly different from one another. 

A group of Harvard Business School MBAs who are used to the case method of discussing problems will be more direct in their criticism because they have a shared context of what it means when they speak this way to each other. They can be honest — and even harsh — without giving offense. 

In the writing room at the Daily Show, open and direct communication looks more like improvisational jazz, with writers throwing out half-baked ideas, riffing on each other’s lines, and interrupting each other in way that Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, calls “burstiness.” 

On the set of any production by Joey Soloway, an award-winning writer, director, and producer whose credits include Transparent, Six Feet Under and I Love Dick, the team gathers every morning in a circle around a box. Everyone — whether they’re on the catering team or they’re the star of the show — is invited to stand on the box and share what’s on their minds.

The common thread in all three of these scenarios is that a deliberate cultural tone has been created where meaningful disagreement is not only possible but encouraged. Where these aligned team members feel as though they can be honest with each other — both about their own opinions, and what they think about others’ ideas.

All too often, though, team culture is built around “playing nice” and getting along with co-workers. Team members agree with each other in a meeting, and then walk out and take the opposite action. They keep quiet about their ideas and then employ passive-aggressive tactics to communicate rather than engaging in productive conflict.

Creating a high-context culture in your team takes time and deliberate work, but it can be done. If you are dealing with passive aggression in your own organization, schedule a call today to see how we can help align your team and establish strong, healthy relationships.

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