Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Executives

Executive relations entail dealing with many profiles, and one of the most problematic are passive-aggressive people.

These may be loyalists of old executives that have gone, or someone bitter over their compensation or car lease, or just someone cynical who prefers to poison the board and other executives instead of contributing.

In this article, we won’t focus on the cause – both because it doesn’t change the techniques used, but also because it’s not easily fixed (I mean, if your Chief Revenue Officer is angry at his bonus based on the contracts signed, which everybody else got, what are you going to do? Make an exception for him just to improve his morale? I don’t think so).

So, this article will be focused on the operations. Actually dealing with passive-aggressive executives.

This is a specific use case of dealing with passive-aggressive people in general, and so the techniques will be the same. We’ll talk specifically about four techniques you can use (from my Ultimate Persuasion Psychology framework) to better deal with these executives:

Four Techniques

1. Empathy

Empathy helps people soften up. It’s not often used, but it’s immensely powerful.

And since most passive-aggressive people are usually bitter about something, empathy really helps them lower their guard.

And with more authentic conversations comes higher compliance.

The best way to leverage it is in the form of simple statements of empathy:
“I understand this must be hard”
“I understand this is not an ideal situation”
“I understand you must be feeling disrespected”

Statements of empathy are usually about the person or the situation. And both can work:
– The person (“You must be feeling angry with this, naturally”);
– The situation (“I understand this is a frustrating situation”);

In fact, just using the statement “I understand” already goes a long way.

And here’s the fact: chances are, whatever the scenario, you will probably be able to relate. If this executive is bitter because their initiative was denied but yours was approved, maybe you don’t agree with them, but you can understand their point, right? Or if they got denied higher compensation.

In short, you don’t have to agree with them, but just show you understand them. This goes such a long way.

It’s not a silver bullet. Not everyone will be softened up with empathy. But it does work frequently to disarm the person and allow you to speak about what’s wrong.

2. Rigidity

This technique is a bit about “dropping the hammer”.

If you’ve tried to be kind, to understand them, to be lenient, but they just won’t cooperate… then it’s time to be rigid and turn off the humanity.

(Just kidding. You don’t have to turn off the humanity switch. But you understand my point)

The biggest problem with passive-aggressive people is that they promise to deliver something and then don’t. So… just force them to do it.

Simply be rigid about deadlines and tasks to be done. Then things become simpler.

I would argue that one of the biggest problems when dealing with passive-aggressive people is that the person gives them too much freedom in the first place. So they have the freedom to take their time or… not do anything.

Simply removing that freedom and defining strict rules makes it very clear.

At the end of the day either they did what they needed to or not. Very simple.

And of course, many executive topics are not that simple. And you may not have the necessary power. If you could just tell this executive to do things and get them to obey, you wouldn’t have a problem in the first place.

Well, even though you may not have that power directly… you still have to use it. You still have to define exactly what you need from them and ask them to do it.

The key here is not whether they will do it or not. It’ just about defining their required action as something super-specific versus something generic.

The more specific their action is, the less easily they can get out of it without it being noticed.

3. Implementation Intention

Implementation intention is a persuasion superweapon. It simply defends that, when you force people to visualize the specifics of doing something (the implementation), they are more likely to do it.

For example, saying to someone, “Tell me how you would support project” instead of “Tell me if you would support this project”.

This forces the person to generate options about how they would make something happen. They may not be the perfect options you had in mind, but they will generate options.

The best part is that the person is the one coming up with the solution, so you are getting them to collaborate (whether they like it or not), and they don’t even realize this.

4. Intent Labeling

Intent labeling, in short, means forcing the person to state what they’re going to do. There are usually two manifestations of it.

The forcing is forcing the person to state something in the first person. Let’s say you want to someone to be on time for the meeting tomorrow.

The usual case is you ask them whether they will be on time, and they say “yes”.

But I once knew a great manager that got people to show up on time 99% of the time.

His secret? He would make people state it in the first person.

“John, are you going to be on time for this meeting?”
“Yes, I am”
“Ok, then please repeat it back to me. ‘I will be on time tomorrow'”.
“Uh, OK. I will be on time tomorrow”

This works due to the psychological principle of consistency. In short, when we state something, we are more likely to value it and act according to it.

So when you force someone to state something in the first person, they are more likely to do it, because they don’t want to contradict themselves.

The second type is active choice.

Normal choices are passive. Reactive. “Are you going to deliver this?”, the answers being “Yes” or “No”.

Active choice makes theses choices active. In the first-person. So you ask, “Are you going to deliver this?”, and the person either has to say “I am going to deliver it” or “I am not going to deliver it”.

It’s very similar to the previous usage. By forcing the person’s choice to be active, they have to state in the first-person what they are going to do.

So, if you need that executive to support that project, or to give their approval, don’t just them. Make them state it. This way, it’s a lot harder to get out of it.


Although dealing with passive-aggressive people can be one of the hardest and most frustrating tasks in the workplace, it can be made easier with the application of a few, simple persuasion techniques.

Naturally, as with everything in life, it’s not a silver bullet, but it will help deal with this type of executive.

At the end of the day, it’s all trying to get the person to drop their guard, while simultaneously forcing them to be accountable for what they are committing to doing.

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