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Developing passive people.

[check] This checklist is for line managers handling individuals who are too compliant, too conciliatory or too self-effacing to make a positive impact. The checklist will help identify the problem and tackle it by making progress towards a more assertive and confident approach.


Passive people are often pleasant and eager to please--even too pleasant and too eager, as passive behaviour is generally characterised by the desire to avoid conflict and to always please others. Passive people may not want to face up to difficult problems and situations because they do not wish to upset others.

They may give in to unrealistic and unachievable demands, saying "yes" when they need to say "no", or at least "but". They may keep problems to themselves and play it safe to avoid any risks. At worst, they turn into "yes people" who tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they really feel. This can lead to a spiralling effect--they gradually lose the confidence of colleagues, including their manager. The manager's role is to help people develop and become more assertive.

Advantages of developing passive people

The advantages of helping passive people change their behaviour include:

the passive person gains confidence, their self-esteem rises and as success breeds success, their new behaviour becomes natural to them

there are fewer missed deadlines, as well as better communication when problems are aired and a reduction in the potential for conflict

the passive person, with encouragement, learns to take decisions and solve problems which previously they referred upwards or sideways

better results are obtained and fewer problems caused from more creative, decisive and productive people.

Disadvantages of developing passive people

The principal disadvantage of helping individuals develop is that it takes time and requires sensitive handling, patience and a genuine commitment from the manager.

There are greater disadvantages in avoiding the problem and not dealing with passive people. These may include:

* the individuals themselves becoming less confident

* absenteeism and/or illness (often stress related) as a result of a continuous cycle of low self-esteem and under-performance, agreeing to overload and impossible deadlines etc.

* loss of confidence and respect from their colleagues, especially if their passivity affects colleagues' work

* playing it safe, or avoiding taking difficult decisions.

Action checklist

1. Understand the problem--why people are passive

Be clear why people behave in this way. Only then can you start to get inside the problem and help the passive person. Reasons why people behave passively include:

* the mistaken belief they will be disliked if they disagree and that others always like someone who agrees with them

* the desire to please, sacrificing long term reality for short term compliance and agreement

* the feeling that other people are threatening

* failing to understand they have the right to their own views and ideas

* not having confidence in their own views and ideas

* no knowledge of assertiveness techniques, and an inability to see themselves as others do.

It is important to realise that for most passive people the attitudes and behaviour are deeply ingrained. They are not something that can be changed overnight; simply telling a passive person to "assert themselves more" can make the situation worse. You need to empathise with the person's problems but be committed to changing the way they think and behave. Be aware of cultural differences.

2. Understand the problem--how passive people react

Often passive people confuse assertive with aggressive behaviour and find it difficult to act assertively. They think if they make a firm statement they are being aggressive, and they equate passive behaviour with politeness. It is important to spot these reactions--don't assume a polite smile means everything is fine.

3. Spot the problem

Take time to look for passive behaviour in your team. This can be difficult because on the surface passive people may seem to be perfectly content. Three key indicators of passive behaviour are:

* spoken language--people who behave passively tend to use words like, "I'm sorry to bother you, but...", or "I know I'm probably wrong, but..."

* body language--tell-tale signs of passive behaviour include:--an inability to make eye-contact

--stooping, and keeping their head down

--nervous gestures, like fingering their collar or playing with a pencil

--speaking abnormally quietly

--using an excessive amount of "ums" and "ers".

* work results--passive people tend not to want to disappoint or upset people, so they may take on too much work, get overloaded and then can't keep up.

4. Begin to address the problem

Too often managers allow passive behaviour to continue unchecked as it poses no immediate problem. However, it is important to start getting to grips with it as soon as you've spotted that it's there. Firstly communicate with the person, and, in this case, communication means more listening than speaking.

Find time to ask questions and listen--quietly and privately--to the person about their passive behaviour. The idea is to start modifying behaviour which should help to change underlying attitudes. Be clear early on that you think it is a problem that needs acting on, and begin to reflect on how you can help.

5. Explain rights and responsibilities

Emphasise that everyone has responsibilities and the right to:

* make mistakes

* say how they feel and what they think

* refuse certain requests

* say they don't know, don't agree, don't understand, or need help

* tell a member of staff that their performance needs to improve, and how it needs to improve.

Help the passive person accept that it isn't helping anyone to relinquish rights and responsibilities; moreover the team can suffer as a result.

6. Explain the basics of assertiveness

At the risk of over-simplification, assertiveness means:

* acknowledging the other person's point of view

* expressing the facts, and your thoughts and feelings, honestly and openly, without rancour

* suggesting a constructive way forward when problems arise

* standing up for yourself if you are being put upon.

7. Be a role model

Show how effective assertive behaviour can be by doing it yourself. If a passive member of staff can see that their manager acts assertively, listens to problems and finds constructive solutions without apportioning blame, they are more likely to be encouraged to act the same way themselves.

8. Give your approval and encouragement

Make it clear always that the person has no need to fear. One of the roots of passive behaviour is that people are fearful of disapproval and of getting things wrong. Define your expectations of them. Make it clear that you will approve of assertive behaviour and disapprove of passivity. Given the nature of the passive individual, they will want to please you and conform, so establishing acceptable behaviour standards is helpful. Encourage a climate at work that actually allows people to release their fear.

9. Create the right environment

Help people to leave passivity behind. Encourage assertiveness by:

* coaching them in techniques and approaches

* setting up an easy way to increase confidence--i.e. a situation where the passive person can try out new skills and be assured of success

* giving regular feedback on the person's performance and behaviour, and by praising them when they are assertive; positive reinforcement is powerful in changing the way people think and act

* clamping down gradually on passive behaviour. Point out examples of their "old" passive behaviour, explain why it isn't constructive, move the person on to a new assertive way of behaving.

10. Implement training and development

Training and development are key factors in helping passive staff change the way they behave. Informal coaching is one approach, but if the person's passivity is particularly deep-seated they may need to think about going through counselling.

Dos and don'ts for developing passive people


Take the time to spot problems.

Remember that each individual is unique.

Explain that assertiveness is desirable and acceptable behaviour.

Continue to reinforce the message.


Ignore it and hope it will go away.

Tackle just the aggressive people in your team.

Become angry about the situation.

Behave insensitively towards the person.

Useful reading

Developing personal potential, 2nd ed., Corinne Leech Chartered Management Institute and Pergamon Flexible Learning Oxford: Elsevier, 2004

Absolute honesty: building a corporate culture that values straight talk and rewards integrity Larry Johnson & Bob Phillips New York: AMACOM, 2003

Assertiveness in a week, 3rd ed, Dena Michelli Chartered Management Institute London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002

The EQ edge: emotional intelligence and your success, Steven Stein & Howard Book, London: Kogan Page, 2001

Developing your people: pain free solutions for busy managers, Suzy Siddons London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2001

Thought starters

Do you: Recognise any of the signs of passivity in your own behaviour? Want to help individuals enjoy their work more and be more motivated through success?

Blame people for their behaviour, rather than take the effective management line and aim to help them develop?
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Checklist 086
Publication:Chartered Management Institute: Checklists: People Management
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Previous Article:Mentoring in practice.
Next Article:Steps in successful team building.

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