Published: 11 November 2010

Is passive-aggressive behaviour a key hallmark of the third sector?

Charity communicators need to make sure that the sector’s passive-aggressive tendencies don't affect their work, says nfpSynergy's driver of ideas Joe Saxton

I recently listened to a client tell me about how their efforts at rebranding had been effectively thwarted by their organisation. The trouble was not that the CEO or the directors or the trustees had been vocal in their opposition, or argued fiercely against the rebrand. Indeed quite the opposite.

The problem was that the arguments against a new brand were few and far between. The opposition was passive, not active. The initiative was thwarted because those whose support was needed were simply lethargic in their backing. Rather than tell comms colleagues that they opposed a new brand they simply let it wither through lack of energy and support.

I was only vaguely aware of the term passive-aggressive until somebody told me I was a classic passive-aggressive (ouch). I had to go and look it up. In essence, I understand the term to mean a sort of "publicly supportive, privately resistant". If aggressive-aggressive is making vocal and clear the opposition to an idea, passive-aggressive is using phrases like ‘"interesting" and "if you are keen on this I am happy to go along" and letting silence at a meeting be taken as support. Meanwhile behind the scenes the actions and intentions are anything but supportive.

Endemic streak 

Listening to my client talk about their problems with rebranding made me realise that faint and fair – weather support was exactly the reception that many communicators get for their plans – and was the opposite of what they needed. We have an endemic streak of passive-aggressive behaviour in our sector. We tend not to be vocal in our opposition, mumbling support while privately being detractors, not wishing to appear (ironically) uncharitable. George Bernard Shaw said it wasn’t hate that was the real enemy, but indifference.

For communicators, this passive-aggressive behaviour is a problem because it is often the communications team (and the HR team) who want the whole organisation to behave differently. If you want to change the image of an organisation it requires the active support of everybody in the organisation.

Wasting resources 

Active opposition to an idea at least has the benefit of allowing the proponents to know where they stand and adapt, withdraw or adjust their proposals. Passive opposition fools them into thinking they have support when they don’t. Passive opposition can waste huge amounts of energy and money because communications teams think that the lack of vocal opposition means that nobody is against an idea.

So charity communicators need to make sure that their plan for rebrands and repositioning are not victim to the sector’s passive-aggressive tendencies, just as I need to make sure that I make clear when I oppose an idea and why, and give it my full and active support once it has been agreed.


Joe Saxton, driver of ideas, nfpSynergy

Joe Saxton is driver of ideas at nfpSynergy, and is the founder and Chair of CharityComms. Joe works on a range of specific projects particularly those looking at impact, communications or trusteeship. He also works on the overall direction and development of nfpSynergy.