The Silent Treatment

Key Thought:

Toxic leaders are often considered to be those that are outwardly abusive – demeaning or belittling workers in public, and infamous for their emotional outbursts. But passive-aggressive behaviours can be equally harmful.

Masters at messing with your mind, toxic people at work have a smorgasbord of options to choose from when it comes to manipulating others.

Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of bombastic verbal abuse – insults, sarcasm and derogation – enough to make your hair stand on end. Usually public and always unnecessary, these ugly demonstrations are harmful to their targets and embarrassing warnings to onlookers, who typically do whatever they can to evade the rampage.

But there’s a subtler form of toxic abuse that can cut just as deep, with much less need for drama.

If you’ve ever worked alongside or for someone who ignored, avoided or stone-walled you, you have experienced the silent treatment. It’s still aggression, just the passive variety – no words or even interaction required. Your toxic colleague simply treats you as though you don’t exist – your input is not required on the project, your presence is not acknowledged in the meeting, your comments are ignored, and your work is brushed aside. You just don’t matter.

This type of psychological abuse at work is designed to cut into your confidence, reduce your status and challenge your worth.

Other ways toxic people apply the silent treatment include:

  • procrastinating over decisions you require them to make in order to do your work
  • precluding you from meetings or information that is shared with others
  • evading problems, obstructing or deliberately stalling work progress
  • being moody, sulking and blaming others.

Whatever form this type of toxic behaviour takes, you need an effective response, which can be tricky when you are being deliberately side-lined. Circumstances and people vary significantly, so no one solution will work universally, but here are some approaches to consider:

Call the behaviour, but without judgment

Don’t condone the behaviour by letting it go, however, avoid inflaming the aggression. For example: “It appears I’ve been excluded from the past few project meetings, so I’d just like to check in to clarify what you need from me going forward.”

Be assertive and set clear boundaries

Toxic leaders target low-hanging fruit – people that will agree and align with them (colluders) or those that will submit and comply (conformers). Be neither by communicating professionally and openly about joint expectations in this relationship. Set boundaries with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements. For example, instead of “you attacked me unfairly”, try “I felt put down in that meeting”.

Dissociate yourself emotionally

Get this monkey off your back. Protect your self-esteem by labelling the passive aggression for what it is and acknowledging that this is their behaviour, not yours.

Tap your network for advice and support

Build a 360 degree network of colleagues and leaders in your organisation that know your work and value your contribution. Seek counsel from peers, senior leaders and HR professionals as to how to deal with your tormenter, which of course, also doubles as a reporting mechanism.

Ultimately, the point is this: You signed up to do a job and contribute to your organisation. Dealing with toxic workplace behaviours, either passive or openly aggressive, is not OK. It undermines your ability to perform at your best, impedes productivity and crushes employee engagement.

Don’t you be silent.



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