Two weeks ago, approximately 19.5 million people tuned in to watch James Comey’s testimony regarding his working relationship and communications with President Trump. One of those was me.
Being who I am, I found myself watching from the standpoint of a psychologist who specializes in workplace behaviors. This writing is not meant to be political. But the questions and answers were interesting from the standpoint of human behavior. Based on brief observations, I noticed conflict avoidance and wanted to ask a more in-depth question:
Does James Comey demonstrate passive aggressive behaviors?
Signe Whitson, author of The Angry Smile, describes passive aggressive behaviors as “a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger and can involve behaviors that are designed to get back at the other person without the other recognizing the underlying anger.” Passive aggressive workers want to get their way without true, healthy conflict. Under the guise of being liked and pleasing others, the passive aggressive person avoids confrontation but still wants their direction or decision to be adopted. In Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace, Mary Corrado says a passive aggressive employee is someone who “smiles and agrees with you in a meeting, but behind the scenes will backstab, undercut, or sabotage.”
Classic signs of passive-aggressive behavior include: procrastination to agreed-upon tasks that work opposite to the genuine desires of the passive-aggressive employee; blame of others; sulking behavior and withdrawal; disguised hostile humor (using cynical or sarcastic humor to send the true message); denial of anger; subtle resistance of authority; and avoidance of open conflict.
TalentQuest is one of the largest personality testing companies in the world. Corporate users of our testing will notice these traits which validly predict the passive-aggressive person:
- Emotional Instability (tendencies to be uneven emotionally/moody)
- Distrust (tendencies to be on-guard with others)
- Unrevealing (tendencies to be closed/detached/hard to know)
- Unsure (tendencies to self-doubt/lacking in confidence)
- Independence (tendencies to operate autonomously; not a team player)
- Restless (tendencies to be stressed/intense/irritated easily)
Now, we are taking public testimony and observed behaviors on TV and extrapolating personality tendencies and traits. So, with all of the relevant caveats about extrapolating from this vignette (limited observational data; self-reported information; limited questioning, political and legal contexts), here goes my view of the melodrama —
The Prologue. Here’s the backdrop, taken from the full testimony provided by the New York Times.
FEINSTEIN: Now, here’s the question: You’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you”?
COMEY: It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just… took it in. And the only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind, because I could remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? And that’s why I very carefully chose the words… Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.
In this moment, Comey reflects that he wasn’t “strong” enough to appropriately handle a moment of conflict with his boss, President Trump. Although we can’t comment on the accuracy of Comey’s self-reflection, we can say that conflict avoidance in the workplace is quite common and is a hallmark sign of passive-aggressive behaviors. By conflict avoidance, we mean the tendency to ignore or avoid dealing directly with conflict through a variety of methods, which can include changing the subject, keeping quiet about one’s differing opinions, or putting contentious discussions off until later. Employees’ tendencies to avoid conflict is particularly strong in situations with a large power differential between a manager and a subordinate (Rahim, 1985).
Act One: Recognize conflict avoidance. To be effective leaders, managers must be able to recognize all types of conflict management styles, including conflict avoidance, so that they can work to create environments in which employees feel safe to voice dissent. Information from personality profiles and performance reviews can be incredibly useful tools to better understand your employees’ motives and behaviors in different contexts, especially when they might be very different from your own.
RISCH: …Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this — they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome? (our italics)
COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.
COMEY: I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, “I hope” this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.
This is a situation in which the power distance between Comey and Trump may have contributed to the avoidance; word choice and communication styles are very salient. Although the word “hope” is seemingly innocuous, Comey stated that he interpreted its use as a directive, given that it was used by a high power superior.
Act Two: Be careful with your words and encourage questions. To ensure that employees understand their roles and tasks, managers must use precise language to clearly communicate their goals. Even in the absence of blank-stares, managers should encourage employees to ask questions or even repeat things back to make sure that everybody is on the same page. These “double-checks” can highlight misunderstandings and encourage employees to think more critically about their tasks, which can lead to a better end-product for everyone involved.
REED: And, again, also, you’ve testified that the president asked you repeatedly to be loyal to him, and you responded you would be honestly loyal, which is, I think, your way of saying, “I’ll be honest, and I’ll be the head of the FBI and independent.” Is that fair?
COMEY: Correct. I tried “honest” first. And also, I mean, you’ve — see it in my testimony — also tried to explain to him why it’s in his interest, and every president’s interest, for the FBI to be apart, in a way — because its credibility is important to a president and to the country.
And so I tried to hold the line, hold the line. It got very awkward, and I then said, “You’ll always have honesty from me.” He said, “honest loyalty,” and then I acceded to that as a way to end this awkwardness.
Here is another instance in which Comey and Trump’s communication/conflict management styles clash: Trump attempts to directly gather uncomfortable information from Comey, wherein Comey counters with a more harmony-seeking response that doesn’t truly reflect his wishes. How might similar situations happen in your organization — employees appease their managers to avoid discord, even if they don’t agree with their decisions?
Act Three: If you sense something might be wrong, it probably is. Deal with it. Sorting through disagreements is never fun, but a leader must always be prepared to take necessary steps to manage discord. Pay attention to body language and awkward language (e.g., “honest loyalty”) for signs that your employee may not agree with you, but doesn’t feel comfortable saying so. If you’re able to identify the problem and sort it out together, there may also be an opportunity to set new norms – rewarding devil’s advocacy and encouraging diverse thinking will catalyze the surfacing of differing views. Problem-solving and creativity are always superior when differing opinions are considered.
The Epilogue. Our conclusions from this melodrama are clear.
Does James Comey demonstrate passive aggressive behaviors in his self-reported interactions with Trump? Absolutely!
Does that mean that he is “passive-aggressive”? No. His behavior may be situational, responsive to the behavioral style of President Trump, and uncommon to his normal behaviors. However, regardless the reason for such behaviors, they are problematic nonetheless.
Now, do both parties need coaching? Absolutely!
Coaching for Trump:
- Ask questions (first) without divulging your decisions and preferences in order to ferret out the genuine ideas and thoughts of others. Listen and seek to understand.
- Diminish dominance when with others who can be dominated; the “how” of problem solving is important, especially when support is needed. The axiom that “Participation leads to involvement and commitment” is salient here.
- Read the body language and make sure that others are not telling you “what you want to hear”. Observe, observe, observe.
- Foster an environment that encourages and allows for creative conflict and disagreement. Ask for disagreement. Make people advocate and debate for the opposite opinion to expand their openness and thinking, and to recognize why people may disagree.
- Recognize the power differential and minimize it; remember that coercive force creates counterbalancing active and/or passive resistance.
Coaching for Comey:
- Learn to express your views openly and candidly, no matter the consequences. You are a powerful person and a confident leader. Demonstrate your strong leadership by being unafraid to surface difficult issues and refuse to be intimidated.
- Personal responsibility beats avoidance. If you make an agreement, live by it.
- Take responsibility for your behaviors and actions. Respectfully disagree and be clear. Gain credibility in most situations by being honest to yourself and your opinions.
- State your explicit understanding of the other person’s viewpoints to insure that there is common understanding and not assumptions.
- Ask follow-up questions to understand the needs and demands of the other party. In doing so, return to the foundational elements of your communications, focus on potential problem solutions methods, and what can be agreed upon versus personalities, histories, and what cannot be agreed upon.
- Feel comfortable in “agreeing to disagree” and to re-visit the situation at a later and less emotionally charged time.
Dear President Trump and James Comey:
TalentQuest is here with our testing and our coaching. We are awaiting your call.
Corrado, M. (2017, January 24). Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.aseonline.org/News/Articles/ArtMID/628/ArticleID/1054/Passive-Aggressive-Behavior-in-the-Workplace
Full Transcript and Video: James Comey’s Testimony on Capitol Hill. (2017, June 8). New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/08/us/politics/senate-hearing-transcript.html?_r=2
Long, N.J., Long, J.E., & Whitson, S. The angry smile: the psychology of passive-aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces. Austin: Pro-Ed, 2008. Print.