Passive-aggressive behavior is poisonous to workplace cohesion and productivity. Fortunately, team building programs can supply the antidote.
One of the most insidious characteristics of passive-aggressive behavior is that it’s rarely an event. There’s no app managers can download that will send them an alert when this crops up. Instead, it tends to build over time, its corrosive effects gradually damaging team collaboration.
That means managers need to be alert to early warning signs, ready to take action.
Signs of a Passive-Aggressive Problem
Typically, when teams are first formed or expanded, everyone is excited. Team members are fully engaged, on their best behavior, and want to be part of the process.
But, over time, people can become less engaged, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps their ideas were rejected. Or they don’t agree with the direction the team is taking. Or they feel that their opinions aren’t valued.
The path of least resistance is to just go along. There’s no “big bang” confrontation. There is just a slow erosion of effort, engagement, and input. There may be some grumbling, but much of the frustration remains beneath the surface.
Managers and team leaders need to be attuned to these types of changes, which may be manifested in missed deadlines, apathy, and less discussion during team meetings.
How Team Building Helps
If you Google “benefits of team building,” you’ll get a long list. The positive impacts are widespread. Here are five ways that organized team building exercises directly help to eliminate passive-aggressive behavior at work.
Improved morale: Team building activities are fun, engaging, and a break from the normal routine. Employees enjoy the exercises and appreciate the investment the company is making in improving their collaboration and communication skills.
Enhanced creativity: Many of these activities present participants with a new and completely unfamiliar problem to solve, whether it’s completing a scavenger hunt, figuring out an escape room challenge, or assembling bicycles, wheelchairs, or guitars. Team members need to work together and often “think outside the box” to solve the challenge. You’ve empowered them to think differently.
Improved relationships: There’s a feel-good aspect to working together on solving a fun, non-work problem. But beyond that, there’s an openness to see coworkers in a different way. People who may be reluctant to ask questions or acknowledge any professional shortcomings in the workplace aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t know how to do something in a team building activity. They’re more authentic and open, because the puzzle isn’t work-related and is therefore less intimidating.
Increased trust: Team events often include time limits and competition that compel participants to rely on each other. They are more willing to offer and ask for help. That process builds trust which gets taken back into the workplace.
Productive fun: Almost all team building experiences produce laughter. That makes endorphins go up and walls come down. Team members lower their mental and psychological barriers. Working together to accomplish the team building goal positively impacts professional relationships; it improves peoples’ demeanor and perspective in ways that carry through to the workplace.
Combined, all of these effects of team building combat passive-aggressive behavior by shifting the mindset of employees. The result is improved trust, collaboration, and engagement.
Here are four specific ways organizations can use team building programs to improve morale and productivity by reducing passive-aggressive behavior.
Reframe the Situation
A common manifestation of this problem is that people are afraid to speak out. Even if they are very unhappy or frustrated about an issue, they aren’t comfortable being direct, saying what they are really thinking and feeling. They may worry about hurting a coworker’s feelings or making that person angry, or about having their ideas rejected.
Team building literally puts everyone in a different place. They are in a different environment, solving a fun non-work problem, relaxed and laughing. This puts people in a different frame of mind. Conversations are easier because the participants are in a non-intimidating, non-confrontational environment.
Leaders need to establish the trust of their team. That trust has to be earned all the time, in different scenarios. They need trust that they are going to hold everyone on the team accountable to the same criteria. That they will provide honest feedback, and not let poor performance just slide.
Ignoring poor performance doesn’t help the employee who is not receiving an honest appraisal, and it doesn’t help the team. There needs to be two-way dialogue, but from the leader’s perspective, there is no single way to do that because every employee is different.
Team building improves communication and team cohesiveness by taking the team out of the office to solve a fun challenge. Earning trust and establishing a dialogue in another environment carries over into the workplace.
Break Down Barriers
We’ve seen even some rather cynical, jaded employees lower their guard and open up after a feel-good team building experience. During the socializing that follows, it’s not unusual to hear an employee conversing with a coworker along the lines of, “That was really great. I wish we could talk like this at the office.”
By attacking obstacles to team cohesiveness from different vantage points, team building helps lower or eliminate barriers to effective collaboration.
In addition to breaking down barriers, it helps participants to better understand the communication styles and preferences of their colleagues. Co-workers seem more approachable, opening the door to better and more productive discussions at work.
Make It a Habit
While team building programs are clearly helpful for combating passive-aggressive behavior, they aren’t a one-and-done solution. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and team performance isn’t optimized overnight.
That’s why top-performing organizations make team building a regular event, often running programs several times each year.
The goal of one event may be dealing with passive-aggressive behavioral issues. At the next event, the focus may be on team cohesiveness, improving communication skills, conflict resolution, or managing a significant organizational change.
Team building activities, especially if done two or more times per year, help build social trust. Frustrations, disappointments, and misunderstandings aren’t allowed to fester to the point where they cause operational or performance problems.
A regular cadence of team building exercises helps develop a culture of high performance. Over time, those exercises become less about resolving problems and more about taking organization performance to successively higher levels, going from good to better, better to great, great to amazing, and from amazing to extraordinary.
The Best Team Building Programs for Combating Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Many different team building programs can be helpful in dealing with this issue, but among the best are Build-a-Raft Competition; Catapult (where teams utilize their creative brainpower to build a working catapult, and then compete on distance on accuracy using their creations), Crack the Case! (where teams solve clues and puzzles together to break into a series of locked boxes) Pipeline (where teams design and assemble a delivery system for marbles using PVC pipe, bamboo, rope, and other materials); and Team Olympics.
And for situations where it’s not practical to gather everyone together in one physical location, virtual escape rooms and game shows are an excellent alternative.
Passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace is anything but “just fine.” It’s damaging to team cohesion, morale, and productivity.
Fortunately, team building can help in several ways, from breaking down barriers and increasing trust to improving relationships, communication, and collaboration.
One event will produce positive results, but to really help people change and be more open with their coworkers, it’s important to run organized team building exercises on a regular basis.
High-performing cultures aren’t created by one team building experience. They’re built over time with consistency, cultivating an environment where people are motivated. And that leads to higher employee retention, morale, and productivity.
If you’re looking to build a best-in-class team or organization, you can do it over time with a little effort and a lot of fun by making regular team building activities part of your operational planning.