3 things an executive can do:

influencing in passive-aggressive cultures


Published on: July 2022

Written by: Michael Seitchik

The Chief Digital Officer (CDO) had a compelling vision for leading a digital transformation that would be critical to remaining a viable competitor in their marketplace. She was hired to deliver on this innovation, and everyone knew that without implementing this vision, the company would not survive for more than four or five more years.

Yet, the CDO could not get her C-Suite peers to have a reasonable debate and reach a decision on a path forward. The rest of the leadership team was avoiding the issue, and her attempts to engage them went unanswered. They weren’t hostile, and in fact expressed agreement on the importance of the change—they just refused to respond and take needed action. Because the company had this “nice” culture that avoided even healthy debate, the CDO was completely frustrated. She was losing ground rapidly, and yet was under the gun to deliver. She didn’t know what to do.

During a coaching session, she said to me, “Do I express my frustration and risk being seen as angry? That will not get me far. So how can I be authentic without upsetting my peers? I am tired of being ‘nice’ and getting nowhere! There are two big non-traditional competitors out there who will eat our lunch if we do not act now. Don’t they see that inaction will lead to the death of the company? I was given responsibility for a mission-critical job, yet no one wants to debate it or make any decisions! I’m going crazy!”

“Nice” cultures: death by a thousand unspoken cuts

The CDO was describing a passive-aggressive organization. These cultures are not rare. In fact, studies have found that over 25% of companies can be classified as passive aggressive. On the surface, everyone is friendly, which makes reaching consensus easy. The problem is that the consensus is really false agreement since it was reached without constructive debate. As a result, few people are really committed to the decision since they gave in rather than buying into the decision. So, everyone drags their feet when it comes to supporting implementation.

A common symptom of false consensus is second guessing. Since team members don’t express their true concerns the first time around, they may bring up a concern or a question later, after you thought the team had made a decision. And since no one likes confrontation, the second guessing brings everything to a halt.

Everyone is pleasant, but nothing can get done. And this can go on for months, if not years. Meanwhile, the company’s competitors are starting to steal market share.

3 things a leader can do

We worked with this leader to plan her path. These three actions, when done in combination, can unlock conversation, collaboration, healthier debate, as well as a way to accelerate your ideas, while navigating the culture of “nice.”

  1. Make the case – the executive team needs to be persuaded on the value and benefits to move off their position
    Explain, in simple language, why the company needs a digital transformation now. Use a few key pieces of data. For example, tell a quick but compelling 2-3-minute story of how a customer filed a complaint because the company’s databases did not talk to each other. Or refer to an industry study that makes the case for the need for a transformation. Show data that is important to your audience – your C-Suite peers.
    The goal is to show them you need to take action now.
  2. Explore their resistance – understanding what’s behind their behavior helps you to connect to what matters to them
    Of course, as you are making your case, your audience is thinking of all the reasons not to take any bold actions.
    To break the norm of a passive-aggressive culture, it is important to make it safer for people to voice their concerns. You need to understand their resistance, not ignore it. How can you deal with their resistance if you do not know what it is? You want concerns out in the open, rather than buried under a veneer of “nice.” The trick is to create the setting to make this comfortable and productive.
    In this case, we coached the CDO to break down the executive team into groups of 3 or 4 people and start the conversation with something like, “You all have heard my plans for a digital transformation. I know I probably didn’t think of everything. Maybe there are some unintended consequences I haven’t considered. Or maybe I am not aware of some data you have. Or maybe parts of my plan seem ambiguous or not clear. In your breakout groups, I’d like you to discuss your biggest concerns and questions. I need to know them so I can make the right tweaks to my plan. Come back with a list of your biggest concerns.”
    By doing this, she is giving them permission to challenge her. But, at the same time, she is making it clear she is going ahead with her plan. This process is a good authentic way to display both the humility required in a “nice” culture, as well as the assertiveness needed to get things done.
    Hopefully, this type of exercise will yield some insights into their real resistance, which makes it easier to respond to concerns, and possibly adjust your plans to meet their needs. And sometimes you will not be able to meet their needs, but at least they will feel heard, and you may be able to offer an alternative solution. For example, you can say, “I understand this initiative will take resources away from you, but this mission-critical project is in the best interest of the company and will keep us sustainable. Perhaps we can find some way to give you some temporary help.”
    By hearing and responding to their concerns, you are increasing the chance of buy-in and hopefully minimizing the second guessing that often comes later.
    If you have successfully made your business case (step #1 above) and you have been given the responsibility to transform the company, you do not need to make sure everyone agrees with you 100%. The goal of decision-making, even consensus, is not unanimity, but unity.
    And once you have that unity – the agreement to proceed with the transformation – the next step is to rally the troops.
  3. Inspire the troops – lay the groundwork to engage and inspire everyone to do their part in delivering on the transformation
    Once the C-Suite is united around the vision of the digital transformation, it’s time to get everyone, not just the executive team, on board. Often, a leader can have the right vision, but the troops will stifle execution. Especially in a passive-aggressive culture, a functional or department head may be talking negatively about your vision to their people but saying positive things to your face. Talking to and hearing from people directly eliminates the backchanneling and filter.
    One powerful option is to go on a “vision tour” and meet with the various departments and functions to explain the vision and answer questions. For our CDO, ideally, she would be accompanied by the CEO and the department leader.

A successful vision tour focuses on two points:

  1. Demonstrating how the change will benefit the audience
    Everyone probably has a horror story about the current situation that is leading up to the change – it could be something like how frustrated they are when trying to get accurate information quickly, or how their systems do not talk to each other. Share a short story from someone in that function about their pain points and draw the connection to the change. Show how you understand their frustrations and how this initiative will make their work life better.
  2. Giving people a chance to ask questions and express their concerns
    Consider convening a virtual or in-person town hall. Ask people to get together in small groups and come up with three questions or concerns. Have a spokesperson from each group take turns sharing a concern. Answer as many of these questions are possible. It is important to be as honest and transparent as you can. If you do not know the answer or need more time to give one, say so, but be sure to get back to the group with a response as soon as possible. By being authentic and honest, people will begin to trust you and see you have the best interest of the enterprise at heart. In passive-aggressive cultures, people are used to leaders saying everything will be fine when everyone knows everything will not be “fine.” You will gain lots of credibility if you are honest with people about the challenges change brings.
    And just as important, you will model a way to be “nice” and respectful without the need to avoid difficult conversations.
Be appropriately nice and appropriately assertive

If you follow these three steps, you will greatly increase your ability to influence change. True, you can’t change a passive-aggressive culture overnight. But you can take some actions to minimize the chances that your ideas will be stymied and gently killed by a “nice” culture. Remember, “nice” cultures are really not very nice. As Carolyn McCray says, “You do realize that passive-aggressive behavior is aggressive behavior for cowards, right?” You need to take the fear out of speaking up.

You are expected to lead, so lead. You are also expected to be nice, so be nice. You can do both.

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