One night I went to a friend’s house for a few home craft beer when I lived in South Korea.
When I got there another guy with his girlfriend was there. They were both drunk. He was verbally treating her like shit. It was pretty apparent that he was using words she didn’t understand. Her English weakness allowed him to say some degrading things. Being sober, it seemed like the rest of the people were uncomfortable with it. Even if they weren’t, I was.
One thing gets me to react, maliciously putting someone down. So I channeled my inner Internet Troll and laid into him. I justified being an asshat to diffuse the situation with a bit of humor and pressing a few buttons. Drunks usually need that to snap themselves out of it.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t pretend that this is a fairly slanted story. It’s my perspective of the situation as honestly as I remember it.
Plot twist: I switched work locations a few months later and ended up working with him.
I did not think things were okay. That night he’d calmed down, stopped and apologised. I phoned him, apologised and made sure he knew it hadn’t been personal. The actions were unacceptable.
I knew his site was in a bad spot. Things were visibly and publicly wrong. I worked over the phone to stabilise things. He ecstatic to get the help. We corrected the worst of it and put some stopgap procedures in place until I arrived. I kept the conversations professional and on point, understanding how bad things were and the pressure he was under as a young person in a tough spot.
He said things were okay after that.
Things were very wrong.
I was given a badly organised desk. In the end it was minor. The offices were modular, I took a day to rebuild it and make something that worked. He tossed me a few sarcastic comments, which got my ears up.
He is a smart kid, so to address it I tried to mend bridges. I taught him as much as he wanted on the technical side of the program1. He seemed to love the trust and responsibility I’d given him. I got to offload repetitive tasks that kept the site running.
Passive Aggression Pops Up
Six months later it started. I couldn’t figure out why. The only information I had was that we were good. I let everything be water under the bridge.
Randomly I’d get left handed compliments. He’d do things intentionally wrong, then laugh when I found them. There were a couple of instances he flat out accused me of breaking “his” stuff. He sent emails complaining that things weren’t working and CC’ing me instead of talking.
I was in a tough spot. I had no positional authority. He was part of the customer group at site level. Without a real structure to handle this it was a touchy situation.
I called my boss, who managed the program from off-site for L-3. We had a good talk about it. I’d keep not feeding his cries for attention. The two of us needed to work together and interact. My hope was he’d get over it. Me taking action could result in formal paperwork for him. He’d also been promoted and was under extra stress. I figured it would pass.
For the next couple weeks little things happened. I kept my professionalism and didn’t engage. About once a week I’d ask if something was wrong or bothering him. The answer was always the same. Nothing.
What made the penny drop was him talking to a co-worker from another section. He said very loudly “If I don’t like you, you’ll know. I’m the king of being passive aggressive.” At least now I knew what he was doing. Trying to open real communication was the important thing.
That conversation on his side repeated itself a few days later with a different person. Later he was with another airman teaching. I can’t remember what it was that they sent my direction2, but it didn’t stop when I asked them to. Just giggles.
At this point I started talking to my direct site customer and we organised a sit down to clear the air. His boss sat in on it as well.
He played dumb for a bit in the meeting. I kept bringing up examples of his behavior. It’s hard to call other people on passive aggressive behavior. By its very nature interpretation is subjective and open to different interpretations. Eventually, he busted and the reason for all of it came out.
He was holding on to when I stopped him from picking on the girl. His point of view was that there was nothing wrong with what he had done. And that’s okay. It’s his opinion. He can rationalise his actions anyway he wants.
But he wasn’t professional enough to just do the work. He had a ton of other stuff going on as well and saw me as a viable outlet for whatever. And that’s not right.
I wasn’t perfect either. From his perspective I’d dictated down on him how things should be done. He wanted freedom to freelance. I didn’t see things that way. My job was to get things standardised at the site. There’d been so much turnover. Over seven years there was little continuity and GIS professionals can be tinkerers3. I’d picked a standard and implemented it. I based the choice on the site’s needs, upper management’s vision for the program and the boss’ requirements. I hadn’t done a great job selling that or allowing him to feel like he was being heard.
All of that fed into his feelings and probably exacerbated the situation from when we’d met.
What runs through my head in a situation like this?
I saw a young, twenty-something who didn’t have a clue how to be professional. I knew he’d burned bridges with two other people at work recently. I held back on sharing that he’d given his passive aggressive game away twice verbally. He didn’t need to be professionally assassinated at this point. From my point of view the unofficial sit down where he admitted he was grinding an axe was enough. I could4 watch my tone when interacting with him in the future.
That was solid feedback. Be aware of who you’re talking to, how it’s being said and the context of the conversation.
Would it have been more gratifying to go for the kill? Short term, probably. I wouldn’t have liked myself long term. I’ve acted the same way when I was younger and wanted ALL THE THINGS RIGHT AWAY. I’d be a pretty poor product of everyone who was patient with me if I didn’t do the same. Whether he would appreciate it or not.
Work was strained with him for the rest of the time I was there, but he acted like an adult.
This wouldn’t be complete without a checklist. There’s lots out there, but you’re here for the story too. I happen to be particularly fond of Psychology Today’s articles. Here’s their simple 4 step list from 2013. There’s a longer eight step list from 2014 here.
- Don’t feed the activity. The individual isn’t acting professionally. That’s okay in small doses. No one is perfect all the time. No one controls anyone else. Be the Cooler5. Be cool until it’s time to not be cool.
- Don’t get sucked in. There’s still things both of you are being paid for that need to be accomplished.
- Make a call on how to try to diffuse it. Especially if it doesn’t go away. Try workplace appropriate humor. If that doesn’t work, directly address the behavior. They likely won’t acknowledge it and shrug it off. That’s okay. It should reduce the occurrences by making them visible to others.
- If all of that doesn’t work, document and elevate the situation officially. This is the point of no return. You’re going to be making an official action against them. Unless they’re incredibly well adjusted, this will burn a bridge. They could grow in the future, but in the short term work proximity will be uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, there’s never going to be a perfect solution. Doing everything textbook correct doesn’t matter because there’s two parts to the equation. And only one side of things are under your control; yourself.
These types of things are complex problems with variables that no one can properly take into account. There’s only the best that someone can do.
Read even more?
Some books that help me immensely in this area are For the Benefit of All Beings, Give and Take, Healing Anger and I Thought It Was Me (but it isn’t). I found the Dalai Lama’s books extremely helpful, even as a non-practitioner. They offer an alternative to reactions that explores things from a different perspective and self evaluation for your own role in the situation.