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Issue: 43 - Jul 16, 2012
By: Louise S. Dunn
Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting

We have all been that kid in the backseat of the family car.  You remember those days - when you and your siblings or friends sat in the backseat of your parent's car.  Sometimes, you rode along quietly.  There were times you read a book or tried to catch a nap.  Sometimes you played games like counting license plates.

Other times, you were an instigator - an antagonist getting under someone's skin until they lost their temper and yelled out loud.  Sometimes, it did not take much to escalate a situation into a major backseat drama - complete with villain, victim, judge and jury.  If you were like me, you could take any of these roles on any given day.  Funny, we never seem to outgrow those roles.

Even as we became adults, these backseat drama roles show up in our daily lives.  You may notice them in the family car, at the family reunion, or even in your workplace family.  At work, drama takes many forms, but if you look close enough, you can see the backseat of the family car all over again. 

Over the course of the next 6 articles we are going to explore the backseat drama occurring at your veterinary practice - what does it look like, why does it happen and what you can do to reduce the drama.  So get ready to take a ride down memory and remember some great drama performances.

Kicking the Back of the Seat

Do you recall this favorite backseat drama?  Those episodes of kicking the back of the driver's seat or pressing your feet into the back of the seat and then claiming you were only stretching.  Which role did you usually take in this drama?  Were you the observer, watching your brother stretch and kick the seat?  Were you the victim, sitting in the front and having to put up with your little sister digging her feet into your back?  Or were you the villain, falsely claiming a stretch or blaming the other person for the foot in the back of the seat?

Whatever your role, do you recall what the drama was about?  Perhaps the kicks were because an ice cream stop was denied.  Maybe you were just told to stop whining and complaining.  Could it have been because of the horrible destination you were not looking forward to (old Aunt B's house and her mean dog) instead of the mall?  Regardless of the storyline, the actions and outcome are the same - kick the seat, don't claim knowledge of what you just did, do it again until you get yelled at or you felt you "got even."

Kicking the Seat at Work

This type of drama happens at work too, only there is a name for it.  It is called Passive-Aggressive behavior.  Think about the family car - you were expressing anger and aggression in a passive or indirect way.  Instead of violently throwing stuff around or screaming at your Dad, you merely pushed a little here, kicked a little there on the back of his seat - and then you sugar coated your behavior and hid behind the "oops, I didn't realize" or "I was only stretching my legs" excuse.

At work, passive-aggressive behavior can show up as

  • passively resisting work (perhaps claiming forgetfulness),
  • complaining about being unappreciated or being treated unfairly,
  • criticizing or blaming others (instead of admitting shortcomings),
  • excessive gossiping or finger-pointing behind someone's back (and being nice to their face),
  • agreeing with someone then turning around and being defiant,
  • other covert actions to obstruct a project or withhold something others need from them. 

Think back to some lunchroom conversations.  Is there a person who always seems to place blame on others when they do something wrong?  (They are always late to work because of their kids, the buses, the traffic,  or they didn't document test results because someone called them away to help them, the sample wasn't prepared properly by someone else, or they told the doctor and the doctor didn't write it down).  How about the person who says that they aren't going to follow that protocol because - it is stupid, he doesn't know what he is talking about, or they don't get paid enough to do all that extra work.  Do you see someone at the team meeting nodding their head in agreement to trying out a new idea - and then claiming "they forgot" every time it is pointed out that they aren't trying to do the new idea?   In most of the examples, you see this person's behavior and you see that they never take initiative to speak with management or take responsibility for their shortcoming.  In other words, they are pushing their feet into the back of the seat and saying they forgot or they were busy on a different task.


Anyway you look at it, being around a passive-aggressive person means that you may not be able to trust that they will follow through.  They may say they agree or they will do something only to drop the ball while placing blame and making it look like they were innocently performing to the best of their ability.


The Reasons Behind the Behavior


Passive-aggressive behavior is a technique of communicating in a roundabout way.  It is recognized as a condition caused by genetic and environmental factors in which a person was given the message that certain strong emotions (like anger) are bad and one must suppress the emotions.  The prime examples of passive-aggressive behavior are typically rooted in anger or hostility, emotions that cannot be expressed and are instead released in some hidden way.  Often times, it is accompanied by feelings of poor self-esteem and poor self-control. 


Most people who resort to this type of behavior do not even realize they are behaving in such a way.  It is often an unconscious expression of anger.  Yet here you are, working alongside someone whose personality is causing you frustration at work, perhaps even hurting your relationship and hurting the level of medical care being delivered to the pets.  How can you deal with their offensive behavior?


How to Handle the Behavior

A necessary part of dealing with passive-aggressive behavior is to create a psychologically safe environment for open communication.  Part of the problem with passive-aggressive behavior is the lack of communication between people.  The person with the hostility or frustration has these feelings and feels unable to communicate them to others.  The person on the receiving end needs to be able to communicate the effects of the behavior.  Being able to talk is the best course of action.


Take some time to get the involved parties to self-reflect, consider what is behind the feeling of anger or frustration.  Journaling exercises may be helpful (  If the person is always claiming forgetfulness then guide the conversation towards ways to get organized or writing tasks down.  If they are always late or are procrastinators then set firm deadlines, discuss ways to plan ahead or take a large task down to bite-size chunks.  If they are always placing the blame on others you must take a firm stand and focus on results, not excuses.  The way to handle the behavior must involve identifying the behavior and establishing the methods necessary for dealing with the behavior (


The real key to changing the behavior actually resides with the person who is behaving in a passive-aggressive way - when they actually see the need to change because they realize the effects their behavior is having on themselves and others.  There are no tips to prevent passive-aggressive behavior, no medications to dispense, and no cure-all tactics.  Merely understanding the situation and straightforward communication are the best methods to use.


Driving Forward


The next time you are faced with passive-aggressive behavior (either the kid in the backseat kicking the driver's seat or that co-worker covertly failing to follow a procedure) you can take action and open the lines of communication.  Use reflective listening skills and focus on results so as to move beyond the harmful behavior into a better relationship.

Louise S Dunn

Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting

12 Snowgoose Cove

Greensboro,NC 27455





How to Deal with passive Aggressive Behavior.  Available online.