Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How do I deal with passive-aggressive behaviors like someone agreeing to do a task then “forgetting” to do it, dragging his or her feet, or deliberately doing it incorrectly so he or she won’t be asked to do it again?
Tired of Passive Agreement
If you live or work with or near other people, at some point other people will let you down—they’ll miss a deadline, fall short of a standard, or just do something wrong. So your question about dealing with this behavior is universal. I’ll offer a few suggestions that are more generic and then get specifically to the challenge you face.
1. Speak up. Some people hope that if they are patient, the problem will go away, even if the problem is reoccurring. They hope that time will cure the issue. While people are waiting and not speaking up, their silence is generally interpreted as acceptance or agreement.
My first bit of advice is to speak up. It might be that the task or assignment is harder than it need be. Speaking up can send a message that the task is important and that you want to make sure nothing gets in the way.
2. Speak up while keeping it safe. The key components of safety are Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Remember to avoid jumping to conclusions or losing your cool. This step requires that you avoid showing on your face or by your tone of voice that you have held court in your head in advance and found the person guilty.
You want to convey that you’ve observed a gap and that you want to figure out what’s going on. The way you stated your question causes me to remind everyone to give the other person the benefit of the doubt before speaking up. Think: “Could this situation be more complicated than I assume?”
3. Speak up about the right topic. This step focuses on your specific problem. In Crucial Confrontations, we teach CPR, which stands for content, pattern, and relationship. CPR is a strategy to help you find the right issue. Talk about content if this is the first occurrence. For example, “JC, you agreed to have the report in by Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. and I didn’t receive it until Wednesday at noon. What happened?” The first and second times can be accidents, so you should talk about the content—the specific issue or behavior.
By the third time, the issue or behavior has become a pattern and you should address this pattern. For example, “JC, the last three weeks you’ve turned in the Tuesday report on Wednesday. What’s going on?” When JC says that the computer broke down yesterday, you can say, “I’m interested in what happened this time, but I’m more interested in the pattern of missing the deadline three weeks in a row.” This allows you to then diagnose the motivation and ability issues that can get in the way and close the conversation by reaffirming the commitment to deliver the report. Follow up by asking if there are any other reasons why JC could not get the report in by 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Excellent performance begins with clear expectations.
And now to relationship. In your case, you need to have a relationship discussion. It might sound like this. “JC, you’ve committed to turn in your report by Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. each week and you’ve missed this deadline three out of five times. We’ve had several discussions and you’ve told me there was nothing getting in the way of you doing this. I’m now thinking that I can’t trust that when you make a commitment you will keep it. I’m not sure why this is happening, and it is certainly affecting our working relationship.”
This is the time to discuss the possibility that JC is forgetting, dragging his feet, or simply trying to get the task reassigned. Based on JC’s response, you may have to start progressive discipline. And for those who are thinking that this is not quick or severe enough, I chose a topic that I thought could allow a bit of patience. Other performance gaps would require quicker, tougher responses.
Over the years, we’ve coached people in situations that lingered and festered. When we asked, “Have you spoken up?” they respond “Of course.” “About what?” we ask. The answers too frequently reveal that they spoke up about the easy not the hard, about the simple not the complex, about the content not the pattern or relationship.
When you speak up about the right topic, you send a message that the task is important, that you are interested in finding any barriers that make it more difficult than it needs to be, and that it is so important that you’ll make sure the task will be completed. Sometimes, a relationship conversation will focus on the fact that you have to hold these conversations so frequently and you need to see high performance without repeated conversations.
In summary, make sure you do the first two steps, and then always talk about the right topic. When you do, you are more likely to find a lasting solution.
I wish you the best,