How Will Your Team Air Its Grievances This Busy Season?

If you are leading a team this busy season, it's likely that a conflict or two may arise and passive-aggressive behavior may result. When you have a group of people sitting on their asses for hours, day after day, not seeing daylight for months on end, it's inevitable. 

When passive-aggressive behavior does happen, there are a few ways to handle it: 1) Address it head on; 2) Address it indirectly through more passive-aggressive behavior like post-it notes and snide remarks; 3) Don't address it and allow the tension to grow until the situation implodes and chaos ensues.

Perhaps you think that options 2 and 3 are fine and worth the risk in order to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, however this slightly overwrought Harvard Business Review piece would disagree with you:

The cost of passive-aggressiveness is high. At the business level, the negative effects include slow decision making, poor risk identification and mitigation, and stalled execution. On the team level, unarticulated but apparent frustrations erode trust, interfere with communication, and contribute to animosity. For individuals, the prolonged stress of unaddressed conflict takes a toll. Everyone suffers.

As a team leader, your role is to foster productive conflict by surfacing issues that would otherwise go underground. But having too little conflict can often be attributed to conflict-avoidant team leaders. Reflect on your own mindset about conflict. If you realize you are conflict avoidant, you will need to shift your own mindset before implementing the tactics below. Think about what contributed to your biases about conflict and which outdated notions can be discarded. Then focus on the benefits of addressing conflict more directly, such as increased innovation, faster execution, less gossip and drama, fewer meetings, and better risk mitigation.

You might be wondering how to articulate these situations and, lucky for us, the suggestions are comically confrontational.

For example, let's say you don't know how you want to address passive-aggressiveness. Easy! You call a meeting to say so:

[H]old a special session to discuss the dynamic you want to establish. Be explicit about the need for conflict, and work with the team to set your conflict ground rules.

In other words, you have to establish that the airing of grievances is okay and rules will be enforced during those sessions. If you're sticking with the Festivus theme here, this is where feats of strength could come in.

But what happens when no one speaks up or challenges you to hand-to-hand combat? Encourage, encourage, encourage:

[M]ake room for dissent. Before bringing any discussion to a close, ask, “What haven’t we talked about?” or “How might someone criticize this idea?”

This will be the cue to your team that responses such as, "Well, I'd criticize that idea by saying that it's an awful idea," or "I'll tell you what we haven't talked about! We haven't talked about Janice eating my Noosa yogurt!" 

However, some team members may avoid the conflict non-verbally. Then there's this fine suggestion:

Make sure you identify passive-aggressive behavior every time you see it. For example, when body language is negative, ask, “I’ve noticed that you’ve pushed away from the table. How are you reacting to this discussion?” or “I just saw three people roll their eyes. What’s going on?”

Again, be ready for anything: "Excuse me, Caleb, I see you're making the 'jerk-off' motion. Is something the matter?" The article also goes so far to diffuse sarcasm whenever it rears its ugly head:

Commonly, passive-aggressive behavior is expressed with sarcasm. Don’t allow humor to shut things down. Say, “We’ve enjoyed a laugh, now let’s get back to Bob’s point” or “I get the sense we’re using humor to avoid a serious discussion. What’s making this conversation difficult?”

Anyone who says, "I get the sense we’re using humor to avoid a serious discussion," might be a little emotionally detached, so choose your response wisely there.

I guess my point is, confronting passive-aggressive colleagues doesn't have to be some methodical, robotic experience that requires a group therapy session to talk it out. However, if there's a team-wide problem and the person in charge of your team is conflict-avoidant, then a regularly scheduled airing of grievances might be necessary.

But really, the best thing you can do is just treat people like human beings. If they seem upset about something, maybe just try asking them, "Hey, are you upset about something?" Or, "Are we okay? I'm getting a vibe." Or, "Let's talk to Janice. I know she doesn't give a fuck, but then at least she'll know that we know that she doesn't give a fuck and we are not okay with it."

I realize my expectations might be a little unrealistic for accountants, so if you have other suggestions on how to resolve conflict during this busiest, stressiest time of year, share them below.