The Cost of Keeping the Peace: The Interplay Between Passive-Aggression & People-Pleasing

HomeBlogThe Cost of Keeping the Peace: The Interplay Between Passive-Aggression & People-Pleasing

It seems more and more I am finding myself in conversations with leaders about power struggles playing out with their employees.

As businesses are made up of and run by people, the focus on what makes humans tick and how mostly unconscious patterns and behaviors impact and influence the day-to-day dynamics are both necessary and interesting elements for all of us to consider.

A particular connection I have seen of late is that between people-pleasing and passive-aggressive behavior.

In the realm of interpersonal dynamics, the phenomenon of passive aggression has long intrigued behavioral analysts and psychologists. This mode of communication, characterized by the subtle expression of negative emotions, grievances or resistance through indirect means, often leaves people feeling frustrated, confused and hurt.  Curiously, a pertinent correlation exists between this behavioral pattern and the inclination toward people-pleasing—a disposition driven by a focus on gaining approval and meeting others’ expectations, often at the expense of one’s own needs and desires.

People pleasers are often motivated by the desire to avoid conflict, gain acceptance and maintain harmonious relationships. And while these intentions are admirable, the people-pleasing dilemma is created from the extent to which individuals will go to fulfill others’ expectations.  To say the least, it can become problematic. Constantly putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own can lead to feelings of resentment, frustration and a lack of fulfillment that then result in trends like ghosting and many of the cancel-culture practices that we have been witnessing more in recent years.  People-pleasing produces disempowered dynamics and keeps us from learning how to advocate for our perspectives, create and hold boundaries, engage in effective conflict resolution and have healthy crucial conversations.

The interplay between people-pleasing and passive-aggression is grounded in the human psyche’s innate need for self-expression. When individuals continually suppress their own perspectives and emotions to align with others, they often experience the accumulation of unresolved sentiments. These emotions, left unaddressed, tend to manifest in subtle forms of passive-aggressive conduct.

Instead of directly addressing their grievances or concerns, people pleasers may resort to subtle forms of protest or resistance. This is a subconscious attempt to assert themselves and communicate their unmet needs without confronting conflicts head-on, although the inability to address things directly ends up leading to even more conflict, as it perpetuates a cyclic pattern that can exacerbate interpersonal issues.

Individuals conditioned to people-pleasing might agree to something they’re uncomfortable with or express a false consensus, only to later engage in passive-aggressive acts.  These behaviors could include withholding information, employing sarcasm, engaging in procrastination or creating group polarization. Since the root issue isn’t being directly addressed, misinterpretations and tensions in professional and personal relationships can build and intensify.

Navigating the cycle of people-pleasing-induced passive-aggression necessitates a multi-pronged approach focused on personal development and refined communication. Here are some actionable steps to consider:

  1. Cultivate Self-Awareness: Recognition of one’s own needs and emotions is fundamental. Acknowledging the validity of personal sentiments is crucial to breaking free from the cycle.
  2. Assertiveness Training: Acquiring the skill of assertive communication is invaluable. This empowers individuals to express their thoughts and emotions constructively, thereby mitigating the emergence of passive-aggressive behavior.
  3. Establish Boundaries: Clear delineation of personal boundaries is imperative. The capacity to assert boundaries aids in maintaining a sense of self and prevents the accumulation of suppressed emotions.
  4. Embrace Open Dialogue: Encouraging transparent and honest communication is pivotal. Addressing concerns promptly and directly fosters an environment conducive to resolving disagreements effectively.
  5. Seek Professional Guidance: Engaging with trained professionals who can offer tailored strategies to overcome negative cycles of behavior provides a much-needed space for those suffering from passive-aggressive tendencies to have the support they need. Professional intervention aids in developing skills to navigate interpersonal dynamics adeptly.

The whole dance between passive-aggression and people-pleasing is more impactful than we might think, especially when it comes to implications for professional interactions and personal well-being.  It’s natural to want everyone to get along and agree. An inclination to foster accord and consensus is commendable, but it’s critical to be aware and careful not to brush our own feelings and needs under the rug in order for this to be attained.

Honestly, the first step is to get to know ourselves better. In fact, this is the whole reason I wrote my book, Looking IN, as a leadership primer! For us to ever get to the place where we can cultivate more assertive and confident communication, we need to discover, define and have a better-developed sense of self. It’s the necessary ground work that allows us to learn ways to speak up and hold our boundaries without causing a storm.

Remembering that each of our feelings and needs are just as important as anyone else’s, and being able to address and advocate for them in healthy ways, leads to more open, honest, and harmonious relationship dynamics.  In the end, creating supportive and fruitful environments is a collective responsibility, and it takes the intentions and practices of each and every one of us to develop and foster this.