Do You Work with Someone Who Rolls Over and Plays Dead?

May 5, 2015

It’s awful to work with someone who’s passive-aggressive. You may think you have a clear agreement with a colleague, about concepts, details or both, but then nothing happens. The individual seems fully on board in meetings and public settings, but when it’s time to take action, they won’t pull the trigger, and sometimes they stop communicating or showing up altogether.

These folks won’t overtly clue you in that there’s a problem. In fact, they can be so conflict-averse that even if your entire initiative is about to smash into a brick wall, they still won’t sound the alarm. They’re too afraid of acting as a lightning rod and drawing fire. And when the crash comes, they’ll be standing far away, out of range of any flying debris.

Falling Down on the Job?

You never know where you stand with these folks. They won’t announce their refusal to comply or produce. Instead, they’ll go underground, become avoidant, and often they’ll provide good excuses or reasonable explanations for “why it’s not possible right now” or how “things aren’t working out the way we expected.” Since those excuses could be true, it can take a long time to realize you’re dealing with a pattern of behavior and not just natural consequences.

What made me think about these folks is a hilarious video (please forgive the fact that it’s of a cat!) demonstrating that with some people, it won’t matter if you beg, encourage, or prop them up. Until you leave them free to do their own thing, they’ll just keep falling down on the job.

Standing Up Yourself

Try taking a phased approach with anyone who consistently reneges on their commitments: First coach them; then counsel them, with the full power of a corrective action or performance management methodology.

Start by identifying what’s going on. If you suspect that you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive person, ask them explicitly:

  • Are you agreeing with this decision/plan/schedule/etc.?
  • Are you prepared to dedicate resources (i.e., time/budget/people/etc.)?

Once you pass that hurdle, ask them to make their own plan that details all the whys, whats, and hows involved — so you can see exactly how they’re going to make good on their commitment.

Monitor the plan and check in for every milestone, deliverable, or due date. Give overt, explicit feedback at each step — appropriate praise and recognition for compliance, and crisp feedback for anything that’s missed.

Don’t Pussyfoot Around

As soon as you notice a pattern of lateness, omissions, or halfway measures, stop focusing on the immediate miss. Point out the pattern and your larger concern about ineffectiveness, avoidance, or undercutting the larger purpose, and follow up your verbal interactions with explicit written comments.

If the pattern continues, treat it as the performance problem it actually is, not as a funny quirk of personality. You may have to work hard to see past the individual’s pleasantness and how accommodating they seem to be. Putting a cat on a leash goes against the cat’s nature. And trying to reinvigorate an employee who plays dead is rarely a good investment of your own time or energy. So don’t be afraid to move on if this person doesn’t turn things around.

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