In the Spring I was invited to deliver a conference paper on ‘Passivity’.  Delivering a key message to 70 senior managers, including delegate participation is a pretty tough ask in a 30 min slot.  I was delighted at the impact, curiosity and engagement of the audience on the subject!

So what is Passivity and why is it so interesting to managers?

Passive behaviours avoid problem solving in the ‘here and now’ and ignores (or Discounts) the individuals or organisations ability to act positively to recognise and then solve a problem.  Usually this happens out of awareness.  Interestingly Passivity can also include expending energy inappropriately on some other activity that is not ultimately solving the real problem.  (I have seen lots of frantic activity in organisations that is ultimately avoiding the ‘real issue’).  The focus of Passive behaviour is to maintain a personal ‘‘view on the world or frame of reference’’ thus avoiding making changes at a personal level.

There are four types of Passive Behaviours, these are:

  • Do Nothing
  • Over Adapt
  • Agitation
  • Incapacitation or Violence

I will explain each of these with examples from organisations:



Individual level examples;


 (out of awareness)

Organisational level examples:


Do nothing



Actively i.e. with energy, staying quiet on a training course or meeting – even when asked a question Not putting into place an agreed process e.g. an appraisal process and creating  reasons (excuses) for not doing so


Over Adapt


Doing what they ‘think’ will please/pacify another person – without asking them Offer new terms or rewards to staff or customers without carrying out any research or consultation




Putting energy/time into something else so avoiding the real issue e.g. a manager carrying out tasks a member of their team could be doing.  Or being too busy with other things to solve the real issue/s Total focus and on the ‘day to day issues’ of the organisation and not addressing the whole ‘future business’ issues.  Or alternatively single minded focussing on long term issues and not addressing the ‘day to day’ organisational issues



or violence


Against self, for example, unwilling to appropriately challenge a perceived injustice and becoming ill (incapacitation) or become violent/aggressive – both avoid recognising and then addressing the real issue The whole organisation knowing they are losing market share and become entrenched/disempowered in the current situation.  Lack pro-active leadership analysing, implementing and inspiring changeViolence – I have seen fighting with knives at the back of the building over a disagreement – which itself is ‘passive’ as it does not solve the problem!


Taking Account of Passivity

To counter Passive Behaviours requires the individual or team to ‘take account’ of the situation i.e. see it, become aware that it is there and happening – and then do something to make a difference – or seek support to make a difference.

There are many and varied techniques for this, some I have used are:

  1. Specific targeted training to raise team self-awareness, to ‘taking account’ of the people/situation using Passivity recognition techniques.
  2. Teach Discounting, Ego States and Passivity in a positive and constructive way so team members begin to learn and understand for themselves current behaviours and potential for choice and change.
  3. Coaching – to raise self-awareness.
  4. Change – introducing new and different individuals into the team mix with a different frame of reference/view of the situation.
  5. Overall – engage!  (The worse thing to do is to get frustrated with the individual/team/organisation as this shuts down the capability of looking at the bigger picture and ‘taking account of the situation’).

Back at the conference and the follow up evaluations, there was real gratitude from the managers for bringing the concept of Passivity into awareness.

Are you or your team fully engaged or showing some Passive behaviors?  How would engaging raise productivity towards real and effective change?  Is your organisation displaying any of the four Passive behaviors?

Contact us to discuss and support to move your teams development.
(Ref. Adapted by M Walton from Schmid & Messmer TAJ Oct 2005)