It happens to every change agent eventually. Leaders agree on a charted course for change in meetings, and then once they go back to their teams they do something completely different.
From the perspective of the change agent, this behavior appears to be passive-aggressive. Leaders agree out loud and then quietly sabotage the very thing they agreed to. It’s baffling, if not infuriating.
The impact of this inconsistent leadership behavior on the success of change is significant. Leaders communicate their support for change more through what they do than what they say. When their walk and talk don’t match, it causes confusion and sows distrust. Left unaddressed, the change initiative will likely go nowhere.
What can you do when leaders show this passive-aggressive behavior toward change?
Assume Benign Intent
If you assume someone is being difficult on purpose or deliberately sabotaging a project, your own defensiveness and judgment affects your ability to do something about it. Assume instead they have the best of intentions. Even if they are really trying to throw a wrench in things, infer it is because they want the best for the organization, and are merely responding negatively to change in a way that is perfectly human.
Seek the Underlying Reasons for Resistance
Passive-aggressive behavior is simply one of many symptoms of resistance. There is always an underlying source of resistance that is causing the behavior you see. Are they losing something as a result of this project? Are they missing something that would equip them to better lead the change, like clarity, training, motivation? Find out what is preventing them from leading the change, and then you’ll have something you can deal with.
Create a Safe Space for Candor
If leaders are agreeing to change in a meeting and then doing contradictory behaviors afterwards, assess the dynamics of the meeting to see what may be causing them to falsely agree. What is the level of trust? Is someone in the room discouraging dissent or discounting concerns? Address those who dissuade honest conversation, and facilitate discussion to surface potential reasons for resistance.
Clarify Leadership Activities
Gaining agreement from leaders about change is not sufficient. Go beyond buy-in and gain commitment to do specific activities to lead the change. For example, have leaders design how they will communicate and hold people accountable. Go beyond buy-in for change, otherwise, leaders may not know what is expected or how to lead the change effectively.
The leaders may not know that their behavior is having such a negative impact on the change. Address these behaviors with leaders one-on-one. Collect specific examples of their seemingly passive-aggressive behaviors. Share how they are affecting other people, the change initiative, and you. Check their awareness of what they are doing, and ask if something about the change is provoking this behavior.
Show Your Resolve
A recent article at Forbes.com entitled, “The Secret Executives Don’t Want You To Know That Will Boost Your Confidence,” says that often leaders push back to test your resolve, to make sure you have what it takes to follow through with the change. It’s conceivable that leaders will also show passive-aggressive behaviors to test you as well. If they can get away with their conflicting behavior without anyone calling them out on it, then they may think you must not be serious about the change. Demonstrate your resolve by following through on the activities listed above.
When leaders show passive-aggressive behaviors, don’t be dissuaded by their authority. Start by assuming benign intent (which may mean not labeling them “passive-aggressive”). Show your resolve by doing what it takes help the leaders lead. Clarify their role in the change, uncover their resistance, create room for them to share concerns, and provide feedback to raise awareness and gain commitment. Turn their negative behaviors into an opportunity to start more productive conversations about change.