Indirect Aggression – Part 2

January was when I started my new role. Probably three months later, my old boss scheduled a yearly performance review with me, which was unusual for a lot of reasons. Normally, performance reviews are more timely. And she had her boss on the phone with her. She doesn’t like confrontation, so I felt like she was having him do it for her. She didn’t say a word the whole time. It was like she was just sitting in the background, listening.

I was just shocked to get a negative performance review, even though on paper my numbers looked good. It felt like a lot of things had transpired behind the scenes so that she could throw Kate under the bus.

For Kate, the indirect aggression happened when her boss threw Kate under the bus by undermining her behind the scenes and then having someone else deliver the bad news. One more example of behavior that is intended to be hurtful but is denied, using silence as a weapon, was demonstrated in one of the roleplays developed by research participants who were managers in state government. The aggression was indirect but quite mean in its intentions:

Four women who work together in an office have just come back from lunch. Marcia was not included in the outing.

“I’m stuffed,” declares Lee, puffing out her cheeks and dropping a container of leftover food on her desk.

“That was a good place to go,” notes Judy, suggesting that they go back again sometime.

Rose casually asks, seemingly to no one in particular, as she takes off her coat, “Do you want to go out after work today?”

Lee says yes and suggests, “Do you want to go to that place that we went last Friday?” Judy, Rose, and Arleen agree that this was a cool place and they would like to go there after work.

In the meantime, Marcia has been sitting at her desk in the same work area, listening to this postlunch chatter and wondering what she has to do to be included in this group. The women seem to have such a good time, and she wishes they would give her a chance to show she could fit in with them. She decides to take a shot at it. Maybe she hasn’t been assertive enough and they think she isn’t interested. She sees an opening in the conversation and says, “Do you know where one of my favorite places is?”

She is chagrined when they ignore her and continue chatting as though she hasn’t spoken and isn’t there.

“So let’s plan on going to that same place,” says Lee, turning her back to Marcia, rolling her eyes, and giving a knowing look at Rose and Arleen.

“We’ll be there—what time do you guys want to get there?”

“How about seven?” offers Arleen. “We can take my car. I’ve got enough room for four,” she says, making it clear that no one else is going to join their group.

Marcia screws up her courage and decides to give it one more try, figuring she has nothing to lose, and asks, “Did you know there’s a new club that’s actually got a place for the kids?” No one responds to her this time, either.

After a short, pregnant pause, Lee declares, “All right! Break’s over!” The role-play ends.

Welcome to the middle school lunchroom in the grown-up workplace. While this was a role-play, it was presented as an example of typical dynamics between women in the workplace. It was one of many such roleplays presented during the study to demonstrate indirect aggression—probably an old and deeply buried pattern that is a form of horizontal violence.   An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (]]>

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