HardTalk founder Dawn Metcalfe helps you get a handle of those real life HardTalks giving you a headache. Have a ‘Dear Dawn’ of your own you’d like some advice on? Get in touch via dawn@hardtalk.info.

Dear Dawn, 

My boss is passive aggressive. There’s no other word for it. He never deals with issues directly and it’s causing havoc in the team.  How can I fix him?  


Dear KL, 

When we talk to people about how to have difficult conversations or HardTalk more effectively there’s an interesting phenomenon: we never get to talk to the people who create the problems. We’re always talking to the person who has to put up with dreadful behaviour from others but is a paragon of all the virtues themselves.  

Of course this isn’t true. None of us are perfect. And none of us are ever entirely “blameless” in any situation. But it is true that we tend to ignore our role in the scenarios we find ourselves. So my first challenge to you is to consider what you might have done to allow or exacerbate the behaviours you don’t like.  

That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people out there. There are. But they aren’t the majority or even a significant minority. Most people aren’t “bad” but most people do have some kinds of bad behaviour that is holding them and others back. And one of the trickiest kinds of “bad behaviour”  is  passive aggression.  

There are many different types of passive aggressive behaviour. You might see a manager limiting access to needed information or giving you the cold shoulder when disappointed. But no matter the behaviour there are some things you can do to limit the impact on you and maybe even help your senior colleague to find a better way.   

1) Do the HardWork – the behaviours in a difficult conversation aren’t intrinsically difficult. What is hard is managing our own behaviour. Acknowledge that and work through the steps you need to make sure you are viewing the situation clearly and are ready to focus on your purpose (the DecisionTree is available online at www.hardtalk.info)  

2) Remember your Purpose – the key to successfully navigating a difficult conversation is self-control and the first step to that is self-awareness. Monitor your actual behaviour (not your intended behaviour!) against the result you’re trying to achieve and adjust as necessary.  

3) Don’t reciprocate – there’s a human tendency to give back what we get whether positive or negative. Don’t do that. Firstly it just legitimises the behaviour and makes behaving “well” a  lot harder. Secondly it assumes that the passive-aggressive person is doing it on purpose. They’re probably not as most people aren’t in as much control as they could be in difficult conversations.  

4) Stick to the Truths and watch out for the Potentials – there are effective ways to raise your concerns without triggering the very behaviour you’re trying to address. While it may feel imbalanced, going the extra mile to take the time to explain your purpose and reassure the other person will build trust and make it easier for them to hear you. Sticking to the Truths is a great tool for this.

For example you might say something like: 

“I’ve noticed in our last several meetings you’ve made sarcastic comments about my work, and I can’t tell if you’re just being funny, or if you actually have concerns about the quality of my work. I didn’t give it a thought after the first time, but now that it’s happened a few times, I just want to check in with you. If you have ideas on how I could improve, I’d really love to hear them.”  

You can share your Potential of course i.e. the explanation you think most likely to explain the Truths but do so humbly and acknowledging that other explanations might be true.  

5) Share natural consequences – there are also consequences to our behaviour. These may be positive or negative and they can be either natural or official. Official consequences have a role to play but their use is usually a sign that something has gone very wrong. Instead, focus on the natural consequences and link these to something you know your HardTalk partner cares about, for example:

“When you make sarcastic comments it makes me hesitate to speak up and I know it’s important to you to hear all ideas.” 

6) Remember it’s about results – you may be thinking “but it’s not fair that I have to manage other people’s bad behaviour. This person earns more than me for goodness sake!” That’s fair enough on some level but you have to decide whether it’s worth the effort or not. We put in just as much effort as something seems important to us. And if it’s not then you have to either accept it or find a way of no longer dealing with that person.  

In that case, I’m sure your next job will only be full of the wonderful people we get to meet!  


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