The 4 rules of passive-aggressive management

Fake smiles, break promises and pretend to care about feedback if you want to get ahead at work.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 19 May 2015

When we think about passive-aggressive behaviour, our minds conjure up gangs of schoolgirls quietly stabbing each other in the back as they jockey for power. Yet there is a bright side to passive-aggressive management. Consider that 96% of employees experience uncivil behaviour at work. Clearly, it is unfeasible to completely eliminate conflict from the workplace, but passive-aggressive behaviours are a useful resource for minimising emotional confrontation and advancing your goals. As Niccolo Machiavelli said: 'Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.'

Here are four tips for mastering the art of passive aggression.

1. Smile, especially when you don't mean it

The number one way to avoid conflict at work is to put on a happy face, so the next time your boss or co-worker starts airing a grievance, just grin and bear it. Reassuringly, research shows that faking a smile is rather easy, particularly when you practise.

2. Communicate only via email

There is no greater weapon in your passive-aggressive arsenal. Correctly conveying tone in an email is so difficult that there are apps that provide an 'emotional spellcheck' before you hit send. To mask your anger, keep your emails economical. For example, is a simple 'thanks', especially if punctuated with a full stop, a sincere expression of gratitude or characteristic of someone struck dumb with rage? The recipient will never know.

3. Remember promises are made to be broken

Being a manager is not without its perks - power, riches, maybe a designated parking spot. Many will want you, others will want to be you. The downside is both your boss and your employees will constantly interrupt your agenda with absurd demands on your time. Rather than telling them to go to hell, avoid conflict by saying 'yes' to everything, even if you have no intention of following through.

4. Pretend to care about feedback.

Whether positive or negative, feedback is a useful management resource and others will use it to try to influence your behaviour. The key is to seem receptive: listen carefully, always agree, and whenever possible, show appreciation for people's advice - but never take it seriously or let it change what you do.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at UCL, VP of innovation at Hogan Assessments and co-founder of Follow Professor Chamorro-Premuzic on Twitter at @drtcp.

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