Passive Aggressive: Is There Ever a Time for It?|
As children, many of us learn about the dangers of gossip. “If you don’t have something to nice, don’t say anything at all”-or so we learn during our more Bambi-prone years. In the professional world, though, dynamics can be just a little bit different. For starters, professional relationships aren’t required to be 100% pleasant or personal in order to be very successful relationships. Hypothetically, two people can be perfectly ambivalent towards one another on a personal level and add more value to their firm together than they ever could separately. But there are still instances where the lessons we learned as children are important to our professional relationships.
Knowing when to confront a colleague and when to work it out on your own
It can seem like it’s easier, when you’re in a situation where someone in your professional life doesn’t seem personally compatible with you, to take a minute, complain about that colleague to someone else, and to avoid confronting the colleague about whatever issue is at hand. Many of the issues you might have with colleagues end up being momentary, fleeting, and not worth the confrontation.
But is this process-what feels like “working it out” with a third party-an acceptable way to confront the momentary frustrations of a professional relationship? It’s hard to understand the exact reason why it seems so much harder to choose confrontation instead of avoidance.
Should women be aggressively confrontational in the workplace? Or Passive Aggressive?
Feedback sucks. Giving feedback is not easy. And being on the receiving end of a feedback session can be even worse than being the one who delivers the feedback. The term “feedback” can represent a few things in this case, two of which bring up some of the same problems:
Feedback (to me) encompasses both 1) classes of things that one needs to improve on and 2) classes of issues with workplace interpersonal relationships. For example, telling someone that they need to be more detail-focused while working on their Excel modeling is a different type of feedback than telling someone that your feelings are hurt because of their behavior. Both types of feedback require confrontational conversations, and they both require a high degree of articulate speech, often including logic, concrete examples, and suggestions for improvement.
So should women be more confrontational in the workplace? The answer isn’t clear. Confrontational conversations are really hard, and can feel unnatural-especially if either conversationalist is someone who hasn’t had much experience with teamwork and communal success. We often suffer from our desires to be liked, and to keep the peace– and we haven’t been taught or expected to be able to exhibit constructive aggression. So we avoid tough situations. I’m not saying this is an excuse for why women conspire, collude, exclude, manipulate and cuttingly use their words. But it does make it easier to understand why we might tend to complain about what someone is doing wrong, rather than bring that thing up to them and discussing it.
In professional situations, trying to vent-or trying to “work through” communications issues-isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But what can be negative is if you end up venting to a fellow coworker, or put yourself in a situation where word of your malcontent will end up reaching back to the object of the issue. This type of decision-making can easily turn into a game of “Telephone,” – meaning that your words will be twisted, and you could end up creating a much worse situation than you might have intended. And there’s some evidence that women struggle with this more than men tend to. According to a 2011 International Association for Conflict Management study, men tend to use conflict avoidance in order to choose their battles, whereas women appear to use conflict avoidance as a way to hide their feelings and thus cope with their anxiety about conflict.
For whatever reason, it can often feel as if there’s no greater punishment for a young woman than to feel left out of– or to be the brunt of– stinging gossip. There is likely not one woman among us who hasn’t, at some point, been excluded from the “in” group or hurt by vicious. But that topic can be left for another day.
Say it to your colleague’s face?
Avoiding conflict doesn’t make us bullies. Having confrontational conversations can be very difficult to pull off successfully. Sometimes, we try to work interpersonal issues out “backstage”-confiding in those around us to vent anger or work through confusing situations-and circumvent that conflict because we don’t want to hurt a colleague’s feelings or create problems where there previously weren’t any.
I personally don’t like giving feedback because I fear that if I do, I’ll have opened a can of worms and given the other person cause to lash out at me with all the feedback that I fear receiving. Although I know that that’s an unreasonable fear, it still holds me back from giving direct feedback as often as should. I fear backlash, and I fear bruising egos and feelings of people who I value highly. But the damage that can occur from misdirected aggression can be far more hurtful than a direct confrontation could ever be. In the professional realm the following rule is best followed: If you don’t have something nice to say, say it off-campus to a personal friend outside of your industry. Otherwise, just say it to your colleague’s face.