Trust, confidence and inspiration are positive feelings. When we feel safe, we become broader-minded, resilient, motivated, persistent, and curious. We laugh more and find solutions easily as our thinking becomes more divergent.
Can these emotions be felt in the workplace? It is possible – if it's psychologically safe.
Psychological safety, the ‘enabler’ of a healthy and prosperous workplace, is being embraced fully by the team here at This is Milk. First explored by scholars in the 1960s, psychological safety is re-emerging as a hot topic.
Angela Prentner-Smith, founder and MD of This is Milk says: “Research findings back up what we already know from our work with clients. If an organisation isn’t psychologically safe and passive aggressive behaviour goes unchallenged it is so incredibly damaging. It leads to feelings of stress, isolation, a lack of communication which reduces productivity, positivity and ultimately will destroy workplace culture if not tackled.”
Angela says: “The demonstrable benefits of a safe working space are felt on many levels including greater staff retention and engagement and an improvement in productivity that increases innovation and creativity. What’s more, repeated failures decrease, which invariably results in an increase in profit.”
What is passive aggressive communication
Passive aggressive language, or language which conveys underlying conflict, dissatisfaction and disagreement can be broadly defined under the area of Face Threatening acts. These are acts or points of interaction where the speaker threatens the face or social standing of the listener or receiver of the language, message, comments etc. It is difficult to position face threatening acts or passive aggressiveness as singular words or phrases (unless they are expletives or taboo language used in insults).
Context is everything
Circumstances and relationships are important deciding factors.
The context in which the language was used will therefore determine whether it can be considered aggressive or not, specifically in instances of passive aggression where the utterance is somewhat indirect and could be interpreted by the listener.
It takes two or more to tango
The relationship between participants, also, where a trusted colleague or peer pokes fun at another, can be interpreted as playful, where a disassociated or disconnected leader makes a joke about the same member of staff, can be perceived as threatening and passive aggressive.
What about power?
Due to the power dynamics which bind our workplace practices, the context ie. the relationship, organisational culture, and mode of interaction (written or spoken) heavily influence which language norms are expected and appropriate in any given professional context. Power, hierarchy, organisational culture and identity dynamics all come into play when considering the context of an interaction.
When not to reply
When it comes to emails, never reply to an email out of anger. Take time to compose a professional email that you can stand by. Conflict is a normal part of workplace dynamics due to the complexity of tasks and hierarchical roles embedded in our organisations. The way in which we engage with conflict and conduct our communication, therefore, becomes a crucial factor in creating collaborative work environments where all employees can feel valued, safe and inspired to engage in meaningful work.
Solutions for mitigating passive aggression:
Aim to make language more collaborative and always consider the impact of your communication and language on the listener. Use softening strategies: for example –
Do you think...
Could it be finished by tomorrow?
I realise you’re incredibly busy, etc.
Inclusive Language -
Could we aim for this deadline?
Do you think we could run through that again?
Balance in power -
Invite commentary and feedback from those in junior roles by asking what do you think?
Is this deadline manageable?
Offer spaces for staff to engage and share creative ideas and views on values etc.
There are times when direct language is needed in order to ensure that business is done efficiently. It has been proven that leaders who demonstrate the ability to move between using softening strategies and direct language are the most communicatively successful.
Developing the ability to recognise and mitigate for the varying needs of colleagues, and to interpret the ever-changing social dynamics across institutional teams, whilst maintaining organisational values and objectives, is fundamental to excellent leadership and collaboration.
Where these areas are mitigated for in advance, there is less likelihood of misinterpretation in later communications. Where miscommunications do inevitably occur, fostering a culture of open communication and collaboration can help to reinstate balance.
Conflict is a normal part of workplace dynamics due to the complexity of tasks and hierarchical roles embedded in our organisations, the way in which we engage with conflict and conduct our communication therefore becomes a crucial factor in creating collaborative workplace environments where all employees can feel valued, safe and inspired to engage in meaningful work.
Resolving these behaviours in the workplace starts with education and training, which is more necessary now than ever as businesses continue to work within a hybrid model. This is Milk’s mission is to help people and businesses be better equipped with essential soft skills, such as communication or stress management so they thrive.
Angela says: “In order for this to happen there must be collaboration and open communication between people managers, HR teams and L&D specialists and employees at all levels of the business,” she says.
If you want to learn more about Psychological Safety, check out our page on the subject below.