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Looking for a fight?

By Bob Priest-Heck

Do you ever have the feeling that someone is trying to pick a fight with you, but you can’t quite figure out why? It’s a lot like the schoolyard bully — some big kid who’d pick on you in hopes you’d take the first swing, so he could really pound you. Now that we’re so-called adults, this kind of behavior is usually less physical and more passive-aggressive. Either way, it’s unproductive and unprofessional. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen often enough that I’ve learned to decode the behavior. I find it helps to remind myself that, most of the time, it’s not about me. It’s about something they’re working through and, for whatever reason, I have become the target of choice.

Often this kind of bullying behavior is triggered by some minor or imagined offense on our part. Instead of responding right away (so we know we’ve given offense), our colleague harbors the resentment, nurtures it, and when it finally erupts, it is over-the-top and inappropriate. I suspect most of us are willing to excuse it as, “they’re just having a bad day.” But there is a danger that our colleague is digging a hole they can’t get out of. As business leaders — and as friends — we need to help pull them out, even if they are reluctant to own up to the real source of the grievance.

No one likes to be called out. Especially in a public forum. But if you feel someone is consistently giving you the passive-aggressive treatment, or even worse, if you find that everything someone else is doing seems to rub you the wrong way, so that you lash out at them, it’s time for a one-on-one chat. Be honest. Talk about what you’ve observed, and try to achieve reconciliation.

This is more than business etiquette. Our work is too important to allow for unproductive, disruptive, adolescent behavior. We expect our colleagues to be intelligent; we should be able to insist on emotional intelligence too. This works both ways. If we never learn what we’re doing to offend our colleagues, we can never make it right and relationships will deteriorate, along with the quality of our work. You don’t have to be best friends, but you need to respect each other and the work it’s your job to accomplish together. Instead of digging trenches, you need to march toward mutual goals.

I wish we could simply mandate that passive-aggressive behavior is unacceptable in the workplace. Our time is too valuable. Our emotional construct too vulnerable. Honest, one-on-one discussion can untangle and preempt a lot of office drama. It requires a degree of vulnerability, but it’s imperative to organizational health. And it’s the only way to disarm and redeem schoolyard bullies.

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