I have saved my last high school comparison for passive-aggressive behavior. I’ve written several blogs about what this is and how to stop it. One in particular talks about an “Under the Bus Syndrome.” Lately though I’ve seen a plague of passive-aggressive emails. To me, this is the equivalent of flipping off a driver from your car. It’s cowardly, and in the case of the passive aggressive email, the person doing the flipping feels impervious because he or she is sitting at a computer. The problem is that the person isn’t impervious. I hate to be master of the obvious here, but an email is an electronic document, people. And it can be forwarded to anyone.
It always surprises me when a contestant on reality television acts like a buffoon or says something completely inappropriate. Don’t they know that millions are watching them? I mean, isn’t a camera right there? It seems to me that people who write passive-aggressive emails forget they’re on “TV,” or that whatever they say in an email is public. Think about it. How many blind CCs have you used? And why is a BCC a possibility? It’s a sneaky device built right into Outlook. And if you don’t use the BCC, how many times have you forwarded an email unbeknownst to its sender?
Here are a few examples of some of the classiest passive-aggressive emails I have read:
Hi Team: Thanks so much for your help with the talent show last night. I really appreciated Bart and Jordan, who were the only employees to stay afterwards and clean up. For those of you who left early, I’m sorry that the show bored you. It’s okay that you don’t care enough about the employees to make the event a great one. I’ll be working late again tonight to tally the results, so no worries on that either.
Staff, I came in this morning and wasn’t surprised to see that no one had cleaned the refrigerator on Friday. I’m sure the person assigned to this duty—I believe that would be Peter—was just too busy, or maybe he was out for the day, which is typical, isn’t it? Anyway, I spent an hour scrubbing tuna casserole from the bottom shelf. It was certainly fun, and I hope to do it again next Monday!
Dear Louis, What a great conference. Everyone worked really hard to organize the event and to make sure it went off without a hitch. It was really great when Lily forgot the projector, and Marv dropped the coffee machine. I certainly enjoyed how one of the attendees complained about Jose. Looking forward to next year, aren’t you?
Dear Tina, In April, I emailed you a list of projects with deadlines. I noticed that many of those projects have yet to be completed. I’m not sure you have enough knowledge about the industry to complete the assignments; but as I said, I’m available for clarification and questions. Thanks.
Dear Kelly, I appreciate how you monopolize all the training rooms for your trainings. I know that my job isn’t as important as yours, but it would be just great if I could maybe have a few hours next week. Maybe a week isn’t enough notice for you, as I know you like to plan ahead of me just so I never have a chance to book the room, but I would really appreciate your “approval” for the room next week. Thanks for all the hard work!
You get the picture, yes? I hope you always understand how damaging these little swipes can be. Why not talk to the person? Why not address it like a professional would?
Talent Show: Talk to the people involved (from the start!). Delegate tasks, so the work is divided evenly from the get-go.
Fridge Fiasco: Again, talk to the people and come up with a schedule. If someone drops the ball, talk to the person individually. Really, shaming someone in a public email is never the answer.
Conference Blunders: Clearly, it didn’t go well, but you can first focus—verbally and in person—on the things that did go well. The rest of the fumbles can be addressed, and you can come up with ways to prevent them from happening the next year.
Projects & Deadlines: Again, address in person. Never write an email with an insult imbedded in the middle. Also, emails are great for follow through—but emailing someone a list of projects without a verbal question and answer session to clarify expectations, you’re asking for failure.
Training Room Issue: Actually this could be done in an email. It’s as simple as requesting to use it and then following up with a phone call. No one needs to couch a request in insults and slights. But people do.
So, yes, people can be passive aggressive at work. Actually, in high school, I’d say there’s more outright aggression than passive aggression. In high school, people are more likely to blow off steam as they go along. As we get older, we learn to hold it in and simmer and seethe until something possesses us to express ourselves in destructive manners.