Skip to content Skip to navigation

Coping with the Passive-Aggressive Faculty Member

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

One of the justifications frequently made by passive-aggressive faculty members for their unsatisfactory performance is that they area asked to take on too many responsibilities, not assigned tasks that are truly worthy of their talent, or called upon to work in areas where they have relatively little training, experience, and interest.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at how a department chairs can deal more effectively with passive-aggressive faculty behavior . It is from Chapter 11, Coping with the Passive-Aggressive Faculty Member, in the book The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration by Jeffrey L. Buller, Mary Baldwin College Copyright ? 2006 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN 1-882982-99-1 Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 563 Main Street, P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA

[]. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

---------------------------------------- 2,263 Words ----------------------------------------

Coping with the Passive-Aggressive Faculty Member

A particularly difficult mentoring challenge for the department chair is the faculty member who, while possessing a number of otherwise admirable qualities, simultaneously undermines the chair, his or her own colleagues, and possibly the department as a whole through repeated passive-aggressive behaviors. The passive-aggressive faculty member who will be addressed in the pages that follow is not, it should be noted, the sort of pathological individual who can be clinically diagnosed as passive-aggressive. If you believe that an employee who reports to you may possibly be passive-aggressive in this more severe, clinical sense, you should consult your dean or Office of Human Resources about whether your institution allows you the possibility of referring this individual for professional evaluation; there is probably very little that you yourself can do for such a faculty member unless you are a trained clinical psychologist. (And under such circumstances, it would be unethical and inappropriate, not to mention unwise, to confuse your clinical role with your position as department chair.) Severe passive-aggressive behavior stems, after all, from a personality disorder; those afflicted with it are often intractable and may not respond well even to therapy. In these cases, you are better off allowing the problem to be handled by professionals and turning your attention to other matters where you are more likely to make a real difference.

On the positive side, it is not at all common to encounter a faculty member who demonstrates these extremely severe tendencies. On the negative side, what you are more likely to encounter is the type of individual who:

* Has a history of agreeing to change behaviors that are destructive-and frequently may even express gratitude to the chair for pointing out these destructive behaviors and helping with them-but later fails to act upon any of the strategies that he or she had eagerly declared to be appropriate

* Blames others for problems and claims to be "as confused as you are" as to why he or she always seems to attract so many complaints and objections

* When assigned responsibilities that he or she does not want to do or had resisted when they were initially proposed, performs the task very slowly or in an unsatisfactory manner, thus "proving" that the idea or assignment was a poor concept from the beginning.

* Has a highly inflated opinion of his or her contributions to the department and institution, frequently claiming to be unappreciated, even though you may find the person's performance to be weak or substandard

* Impedes departmental work simply by failing to answer routine requests, memos, or emails in a timely manner

* When challenged about poor performance or uncollegial behavior, routinely projects the worst of his or her own character traits unto others.

Unlike other kinds of behavior problems, mild passive-aggressive tendencies often seem to give little if any distress to the faculty members demonstrating them. By contrast, chronic complainers may well be aware that they make themselves as miserable as they make others. Outright hostile faculty members frequently realize that their aggressive tendencies alienate those around them, even though they may be powerless to control those tendencies. Passive-aggressive faculty members, on the other hand, are often so convinced that they are trying to improve, that the problems still occurring are the fault of others, and that the animosity others may show them is simply the result of jealousy on their own part that they remain blithely unaware that they have a problem.

The behaviors demonstrated by even mildly passive-aggressive individuals are probably deeply ingrained. For this reason, you are unlikely to create dramatically improved behavior in such a faculty member, even if you make a consistent attempt to do so. There are, however, three strategies you may wish to attempt in order to cope with someone's passive-aggressive tendencies and to reduce the difficulties that are occurring in your department.

Establish with the Faculty Member, Not Mere Goals for Performance, But Specific Timetables for Their Implementation

As we have seen, it is often not at all difficult to get passive-aggressive faculty members to agree that an existing problem needs to be changed. The real challenge comes in prompting significant improvement in behavior without addressing the underlying causes of the difficulties. If you wish to see real changes, you will need to establish a clear and reasonable timetable with the faculty member, monitor that timetable effectively, and adopt rewards or sanctions based on whether the goals you have set are actually met.

At a performance appraisal meeting with the faculty member, set a specific goal that you would like the individual to achieve and impose a clear deadline. This first task you assign should, in most cases, be relatively easy and the deadline should be relatively soon: 48 hours to one week. What you are asking the faculty member to do might involve completing a long overdue memo or annual report (provided, of course, that this task can reasonably be accomplished in the time that you have allowed), contacting a committee in order to set the date of its next meeting, or returning a graded course assignment that should have been handed back some time ago. Get progress reports, if you feel it necessary, even before the deadline arrives. Let the faculty member resent the pressure you are applying if he or she must, but take the steps that you feel are necessary to get the assignment done. In truth, the resentment may or may not subside once the task is complete, but remember that your ultimate goal is increasing your department's overall productivity and service to your students, not generating the contentment of this particular faculty member.

When the task is complete, review it with the faculty member, being generous with your approval where it is warranted, but not accepting shoddy, inferior, or slovenly work. If improvements are necessary, be very clear about what you would like changed and why that is important. Set a new deadline (perhaps breaking the task into even smaller parts, each of which must be approved in turn) and begin the process again. If the assignment was successfully completed, praise it appropriately and begin setting new deadlines for new tasks. Start by planning various assignments perhaps six weeks out or until the end of the current semester. Establish a sufficient number of concrete steps along the way so that you will always know whether the faculty member is making progress in a timely manner. Then provide the faculty member with frequent, candid, and constructive feedback regarding the rate of progress being made.

Allow the Faculty Member Some Flexibility and Choice in Work Assignments Where This Is Possible, With Standards of Performance in These Areas Set Proportionately High

One of the justifications frequently made by passive-aggressive faculty members for their unsatisfactory performance is that they area asked to take on too many responsibilities, not assigned tasks that are truly worthy of their talent, or called upon to work in areas where they have relatively little training, experience, and interest. One way to respond to this ploy is to allow some flexibility in the faculty member's work assignment where this is possible and desirable. If the faculty member is given a chance to play an active role in selecting the assignment that he or she will take and in setting the deadline (within limits), then there can be no such excuse as "this was something I really didn't want to do in the first place." It can be useful to have the faculty member provide you with a list in writing of those committee assignments, tasks, or reports that he or she is really most interested in. Then, if deadlines go by unmet or a pattern of excuses begins to emerge, you will have this written document to go over with the faculty member, saying "But I'm confused as to why this isn't getting done. Back on such-and-such a date, you sent me a memo telling me that you really wanted to do this."

When allowing the faculty member some leeway in selecting responsibilities and deadlines, it is appropriate to combine this flexibility with correspondingly higher standards of achievement. Since you are dealing with a task that the faculty member has personally selected, poor performance or missed deadlines should not be an option. Remind the faculty member that with increased freedom comes increased responsibility, and that your expectations rise proportionately with the added self-determination you are offering in this task.

Require More Frequent Updates and Progress Reports From This Faculty Member Than You Might Expect From Most Employees

While your goal is ultimately to wean the faculty member from the constant supervision and frequent deadlines that you will use at the beginning of your mentoring process, you should realize that faculty members with mild passive-aggressive tendencies will always require a higher level of guidance and supervision than other faculty members. When you see that genuine progress is being made, reduce the number of mentoring sessions to once a month, and eventually to once or twice a semester. At those sessions, you can review progress towards goals, set new objectives, celebrate targets that have been reached, and speak candidly about any lapses or backsliding. Keep the meeting as task-oriented as possible: don't reinforce the faculty member's tendencies to complain or to shift blame to others by acknowledging this behavior. You should not expect progress to be either smooth or rapid. Remember that, unlike other mentoring challenges, you are far less likely to "fix" the difficulties arising from the passive-aggressive faculty member than simply to manage and reduce them.

Your institution's Counseling Center or Human Resources Office may be able to assist you with further techniques that could be effective in your individual situation. You may also wish to consult Lieberman's (2005) How to Change Anybody and Topchik's (2001) Managing Workplace Negativity for the specific advice they give on dealing with passive-aggressive temperaments.

Whatever strategy you take, avoid the temptation of trying to solve the faculty member's problem by addressing his or her underlying issues of self-image, problems with authority figures, or past trauma. As an effective mentor for the members of your department, your role is to help them grow as professionals through your guidance and example. Being a good mentor does not mean becoming an employee's spiritual counselor, therapist, or confidante. Whatever other role you may play in other situations, you are still the faculty member's boss, and you are entitled to expect a certain amount of professionalism regardless of the problems that faculty member has had or is having.

For this reason, keep your focus on the behavior you want the faculty member to demonstrate, not on the person's underlying reasons or justifications for past actions. For instance, are there aspects of this faculty member's performance that you can legitimately praise and cite as examples of the type of accomplishments that he or she should continue to pursue? Is the faculty member a good organizer of plans (though perhaps not as successful at carrying out those plans)? Does the faculty member tend to work effectively one-on-one with students (though perhaps less effectively in committees)? Is the faculty member a polished writer (even if it takes a very long time for his or her written works to be completed)?

As you would with all your faculty, conduct your mentoring of the faculty member by focusing on these areas of demonstrated strength, perhaps even changing a few of his or her assignments (where appropriate) as a means of playing to that person's strengths. Having established a baseline of understanding about "This is what you do well?," you then can turn to the areas of performance that really are causing problems for the department. Start with general observations about the individual's poor performance ("On the other hand, you have the tendency to miss deadlines and to request extensions repeatedly that causes a number of problems for us.") Give a few specific examples, but don't pile on so many instances of poor performance that the faculty member reverts to self-defense. If you do happen to notice a tendency towards defensiveness, simply ignore it. Don't let your focus deviate from the faculty member's actions and don't give in to comforting the faculty member by discussing any justifications that he or she may give you for poor performance.

Similarly, if the faculty member keeps blaming others for his or her poor performance, routinely ignore these statements. (Either say nothing at all or rapidly return to your primary subject: "Well, that's not the issue. What we're talking about is how you can be even more effective.") The important impression that you wish to establish with the employee is that: 1) there are good things that he or she does, and these contributions are both recognized and appreciated by the department; but 2) there are also some areas in which the faculty member can improve, and these are areas for which the individual needs to take personal responsibility, not assign blame to colleagues.

Coping with the passive-aggressive faculty member is likely to require a great deal of patience and, even then, the situation may well cause you repeated frustration and irritation. In the most difficult of times, it may be useful to remember that the individual's behavior is not caused by anything that you, your department, or your institution has done. Ultimately, it is the individual's own problem and, while you can take steps to cope with the departmental challenges resulting from it, it neither is nor should be your responsibility to solve it. Only the individual faculty member can do that.


Lieberman, D.J. (2005). How to change anybody: Proven techniques to reshape anyone's attitude, behavior, feelings, or beliefs. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.

Topchik, G.S. (2001). Managing workplace negativity. New York, NY: American Management Association.