Contributing Factors to a ‘Passive Heavy’ Nation in New Zealand -and how that affects workplace well-being


Published: 7 Sep 2019

Workplace Well-being


Three factors have contributed to New Zealand being a ‘passive heavy’ society or nation, and they are all linked. This is only a theory, my theory – there is no statistical data that I can find to back up my claim. My only ‘proof’? The 1200 businesses I have worked with in New Zealand and over 10,000 people in public events and corporate training and coaching. I have been watching the patterns and trends since I founded Elemental Potential in 2012.

  1. Early settlers of New Zealand often lived in isolated parts of the country and were isolated from other tribes, families and people in general, meaning minimal social interaction with a wider community. The upside of this is that we became innovators, inventors, outdoorsy by necessity. The Traditionalist or ‘Silent’ generation were direct descendants of those early settlers (in which I include the first Maori and European settlers).
  2. We have a nation that is now five generations This is likely the first time in history that it has happened on this scale, due to technological and medical advances. We have: Traditionalists – 1900 – 1945. Baby Boomers – 1945 – 1960. Generation X – 1961 – 1980. Millennials – 1981 – 1995. Generation Z – After 1995. We have to co-exist together at work, at home, in life.
  3. Sequences of events that create and develop individual communication styles in a person. This could include: Pre-conditioning from role models (parents), generational influences (different times and societal norms), and even geographical factors (small town influence). Environmental factors such as toxic workplaces. Situational factors such as individual family units, shifting divorce rates and single parent families, living or working with someone with a personality disorder i.e. narcissism.

So, is one of these factors, or a combination of them what made us ‘passive heavy’ as a nation? Is it literally ingrained in our DNA from the earliest settlers? Is it generational? Is it individuals – from many, many individuals?

The prevalence of communication issues in workplaces is usually down to one of two things:

  • One or more toxic people in the business. Toxic in a workplace context is defined as passive aggressive behaviour, bullying, aggressive behaviour, people with personality disorders.
  • If I can find no presence of toxic behaviour (which is VERY rare). Then the mitigating factors that are causing communication issues and exacerbating workplace well-being will be about the ratio of passive’s to assertive’s in the business or leadership team. If the ratio is too ‘passive heavy’ this causes a state of enablement and/or acceptance – not saying what you know needs saying, not engaging when you could and should. And, assumption – not checking the facts – because you don’t want to rock the boat.

So why do we find it so difficult? If you are from the US or UK, you likely have no problem vocalising your thoughts and letting people know when you feel you are ‘hard done by’ or something is unfair. New Zealanders conversely don’t like making a fuss, will often avoid making a scene, and then talk or download to someone else afterwards about the situation (passive/in-direct behaviour).

Would you step into, or away from these three scenarios?

  • If you got the wrong order in a café would you point it out and get it changed?
  • If the food was really bad, would you point it out and try to get it taken off the bill?
  • If you saw someone being undermined at work would you step in to help?

The answer I suspect is step away if you are a passive communicator. You would eat the wrong order so as not to cause a fuss. You would not complain or ask for a refund. You would not step in, (but hope someone else would) if you saw a colleague being undermined or bullied at work.

New Zealanders with a passive communication style have a propensity to dilute conversation in text and email communication to the point that it is 80% waffle and fluff and 20% facts and needs (which are invariably shoved on the end somewhere) after you have tried to pre-placate someone, or help them to see that you are a nice person.

If you’re wondering why your niceness didn’t then eventuate in any actual action (the person did what you expected) it could be because of this – most humans take note of the first 6-9 words of anything. So, those first words can’t be how is your day going today, what amazing weather we are having, how’s your dog doing? How are your mum’s varicose veins?

Ask for what you want or need first, and then add the ‘fluffies’ onto the end – but don’t get offended if an assertive person doesn’t send the fluffies back – they are not on their highest value list. A passive communicators first priority is niceness, and how they are perceived. An assertive communicators first priority is to get the job done.

There are so many variables when I go into a workplace to work with them on their communication. It would be foolish for me to set out with any preconceived ideas or judgements. To focus on gossip or testimony told to me, without seeing and experiencing for myself. It helps to look at the whole picture, or to use a body language term – the clusters of events.

These clusters in body language would mean not merely looking at an isolated gesture, but then continuing to read the whole body from head/face to toe, along with what is happening around that person. In this way you prevent yourself making a snap assessment or bowing to ‘norms’ in baselines such as crossed arms and the numerous theories about deception for example.

There are so many theories as to how some NZ workplaces are in the ‘state’ they are in. The word ‘toxic’ – bandied around for several years now, has lost its lustre. And somewhere along the way (around two years ago) I stopped concentrating on these individuals in workplaces and instead concentrating my efforts and talents on making life for the masses a safer and more pleasant peaceful place to co-exist.

This place that I decided to concentrate on has a name nowadays. It is called Workplace Well-being. Many NZ businesses now have an actual budget for it, they have guest speakers on well-being topics, and run workshops and counselling sessions. Some are stoically resisting the need for it, or denying the existence of workplace well-being being necessary (bless them).

Often, some of what I see in workplaces defies the shiny image we want to be known for as New Zealanders.

“New Zealand’s friendly and down-to-earth people will be one of the things you treasure most about your visit”. Is how we are described on the 100% Pure NZ website. And, to be clear, I’m not trying to dissipate that view. We are that, without doubt to an incoming visitor.

My first recollection of New Zealand was in 2000 when, in search of where we were going to settle in this beautiful land, we went on a ‘Tiki Tour’. We didn’t get far. Somewhere between landing in Auckland and driving through North Island we ended up on a blue road (minor/unmarked) instead of a red road (main highway) on the map (no GPS in those days on my phone) somewhere heading to Taranaki. Almost on cue, just as I started to panic that we were in the ‘wop wops’, I had two small children with me, and the road had ceased being tarmac a few kilometres earlier, the back tyre burst. My heart churned, no cell phone reception, it was late afternoon, and the tyre needed changing.

The boot was fully loaded so to get to the spare we had to offload the luggage. As I got the kids out of the car to the side of the road it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen another car for ages, and I began to wonder what would happen.

In answer to an un-vocalised prayer, around the corner came a guy (in his late 60s at a guess) in a ute. He stopped, and without a word just looked at the situation in front of him. “Need a hand?” He said. I nodded, and he calmly got out of the ute and went to the back of the car. When he realised that I had two kids on the side of the road, he returned to his ute and appeared with 2 Mars bars and a bottle of water and without words handed them to my kids. He changed the tyre for me, put the burst tyre in the boot along with the luggage, and then for the first time actually looked at me directly and said, “when you get past the next corner, turn right and you’ll end up back on the main road.” He didn’t feel the need to ask how we’d ended up on that blue road. He didn’t feel the need to add on the twiddly bit of “where you should have been in the first place.” He got back in his ute and drove off – one of my first interactions with a Kiwi outside of the airport, and a café that I remember being painted pink.

So yes, we are that, for sure – we are friendly and good sorts. It’s the reason I wanted to live in New Zealand in the first place. The pace of life, the rejection of the bigger, better, faster lifestyle, and the people. I came here naïve and hopeful. Hopeful that the people wouldn’t care what car I drove, how big my house was, and that they wouldn’t judge me. A place where kids could actually go outside and ride a bike. All of that, and so much more exceeded my expectations. For the first time in years I felt peaceful, and at peace. I am a New Zealand citizen. This is my life long home, and I still feel that peace every day – more so in amongst the breath-taking mountains of South Island.

It wasn’t until I began employing staff in my first business here in 2001, and later working in Elemental Potential from 2012 that my realisation about the inherent nature of New Zealand gradually revealed itself to me. We are a ‘passive heavy’ nation! This shows its head in almost every workplace I go into. The ratio of passive’s to assertive’s is skewed. This is part of the ‘cluster of events’.

Too many passive’s in a business or team means a tiny army of people who are voiceless (that is not to say opinion-less) by choice. The most shocking revelation that ever came up was from a head chef in one of my workshops – “they  (passive people) are  ‘a team of ‘puppets’ who you can control”. He said this along with accompanying hand gestures to simulate the puppet master strings. The people in the room who laughed that day were assertive/aggressive. The people who looked pained and shocked were passive. The people in the room who gave a wry smile were the passive-aggressive’s – and they no doubt would have talked about it outside of the room later.

At least once or twice a week I conduct an activity within businesses called communication styles. This involves getting people to guess what type they are before they know too much about it, and then in groups do an activity where they aim to choose words that describe the four communication styles currently recognised within psychology. Passive, assertive, aggressive, passive – aggressive (in -direct).

As I walk around the groups as they are working, I keep in mind what each person in the group identified with initially. Why is this important? Because depending on how many of each type on a table, I can tell instantly what the words will be like that they will come up with. Sometimes to prove the point beyond doubt I will purposefully put a whole table of assertives/aggressives together (which is what I did the day of the ‘puppet’ incident).

The more passive the group, the nicer the words they come up with for passive’s – think: kind, gentle, caring as descriptors. Passive’s using words to describe assertive’s will often use bully, bossy, egotistical, whereas assertive’s would describe themselves as confident, direct and logical.

Conversely, a more assertive group, or the assertive person within a group will commonly use words like people pleaser, pushover, weak, wishy washy, to describe a passive person. The point I’m trying to make at this juncture in the activity is that whatever you perceive yourself as, someone more assertive or dominant than you will see you as those negative spin words if you behave passively.  It is all in the perception of the beholder.

So, where does your communication style come from? A whole sequence of events that made up your life or the lives of the people in your life. The people who influenced you were also influenced by people in their lives, and the generational differences in communication styles and values cannot be ruled out. Each generation brings with it a new perspective, new technology, and re-creates societal ‘norms’.


Generation differences affect communication on so many levels.

The generation you are from speaks volumes as to your values and belief system. How you prefer to communicate. How you like to work.


Traditionalists 1900-1945

Often called the ‘Silent’ generation. They were raised by parents that survived the great depression. They experienced hard times growing up. Their values are about: honour, loyalty, compliance, sacrifice, dedication, hard work, good attitude, attendance, practical knowledge and a dedicated work ethic.

What life taught them? You do your duty before you have fun. You can expect others to honour their commitments, and behave responsibly – your word is your bond. You adhere to rules, like to be respected, and individualism is not valued.


Baby Boomers 1945 – 1960

The earliest were war babies, and the later boomers had the one of the biggest change periods in human history to cope with. Idealist, competitive, and polished. ‘Scandalous’ music, anti-establishment, and the beginning of the birth of technology that changed the way we did everything – from the chores around the home and kitchen tasks to communicate with others. Gender roles previously set in stone started to shift.

Boomers in contrast to traditionalists were ambitious, they were about collaboration, equality, personal fulfillment/gratification, personal growth, teamwork, staying youthful. Spending now and worrying about it later. They wanted a flexible way to retire, equal opportunities, and to make a difference in the world. They were rebellious because their parents had it hard and were conservative. Their workplace attitude? Get the job done and be highly visible doing it. No work life balance. They were ‘work to live’ They gave us the 50 hour work week, and being ‘seen’ to be the first in the building and the last out.

You can often tell the generation from the technology you used. My childhood phone recollection was getting tangled up in a long cord whilst hanging out in the hallway on a special phone seat. Later when phones went cordless it blew our minds being able to walk around with them. The first cell phone I remember came with a carry case that looked like a Black and Decker drill box …that was the battery!

I’m a Gen X, and my tech of the day was a treasured Sony Walkman. If your first phone was a Nokia and you then progressed to the first flip open, this probably labels you as an X’er too.

Generation X 1961 – 1980

They were ‘ live to work’ not work to live like the previous generation. They saw the lives their parents had, and wanted more balance in theirs. Their keywords might be skeptical, resourceful and independent. They were motivated by learning, and how quickly they could progress to the next job promotion. They thought up flexi-time and job sharing and cared much less about advancement. They relied on keeping up with technology, and business savvy to stay employed.

X’ers had Fax, answering machines (which were separate to the phone). As teenagers we saw the revolution from tapes to CD’s for music. Floppy discs in the early computers to CD’s. You likely had a pager too if you thought you were important, and as phones progressed you would have had a headset with a bud around your ear to speak into.

We are the most likely of all the generations to build bridges easily to Gen Z – as we too like short and sweet conversations, by email preferably.  Gen X are entrepreneurial by nature another trait of Gen Z – although they would call it personal branding. We led the way for them to set their own rules about how and why they like to work, and for the ‘gig’ economy to flourish.

Then came:

The Millennials – 1981 – 1995

If your first phone was an i Phone or your first Christmas gift as a tween was an iPod then you are probably a Millennial.  Absorbing a high- tech revolution that moved connection from just a phone to social media, and created a sub-culture where everyone knows everything about one another and nothing is private. They were immersed in Harry Potter, and first generation ‘Sheeples’ on Facebook. Caring more about what was ‘seen’ about their life than their actual life.  They like to avoid face to face communication, but love using inter office intranet and apps. They like a team-oriented workplace,and have no compunction to stay a second after their finish time.

They were raised to feel valued and super positive about themselves. The ‘you can be anything you dream’ generation. Blame them for being entitled by all means….. and then turn a mirror on yourself instantly as a parent and own every time you did something for them, that they could have done for themselves. Sports and anything with competition often became about participation rather than a winner. They had a voice in family decisions.

In NZ in 1980 the divorce law changed and for the first time you could divorce someone for irreconcilable differences. So, divorce rates rose, many kids were bought up in ‘broken’ homes. This high level of divorced parents created independent people who were self-reliant, pragmatic, global thinkers. They had a strong sense of entitlement and were unimpressed with authority.

They believe more than any other generation that output is more important than how you got there. In other words – you don’t need to work 10 hours a day to get the job done. You work with savvy, and efficiency.

They expect to be paid well and won’t do it if they don’t see the value in it. They see no requirement to conform to societal or workplace ‘norms’ just ‘because’. They want to know the rationale behind what you just asked them to do, and will expect reward and recognition for whatever they do.

They dislike work they see as menial and are a ‘brain smart’ generation. This means that they can respond poorly to authority and structure and can lack discipline. On the plus side they are highly educated, a value from their parents. They are also positive and the most resilient of generations as they were likely brought up by single parents. A generation of ‘blended’ families made them tolerant, and team players.


Generation Z – after 1995

Grew up in this high-tech world where speed is king. With instant gratification as their birth right. They are the generation of zero wait time. Instant click through to next episode on Netflix. They have according to the latest research an ‘8 second filter’. This means that they can quickly sort through and assess huge amounts of information. They use Apps to ensure their content and information is bang up to date and rely on curators at all levels of their life to assist in the sorting. Remember they have never seen the world without the internet.

A cashless sub-society. Food delivered to your door. You don’t even have to socialise to go out and find food. You can remain living in your virtual world. They are raised in a screen world and don’t think twice about learning anything from unblocking the sink, to buying shares on You Tube. Don’t take it personally if they find out things from the internet instead of you.

Millennials were accused of lack of focus. Gen Z are planners. They are risk averse and highly inquisitive. They crave financial stability. They are better at self-care. Less likely to smoke or eat meat. They are environmentally conscious by default. They sometimes feel the weight of the previous generations ‘mistakes’.

The differences in communication styles are apparent in the workplace and in homes. Boomers like face to face. X’ers like concise and sticking to short text and emails. Millennials live through social media, and Generation Z like direct and clear communication – they won’t spend the time trying to decipher anything else.

Recent evidence shows that although Z’s prefer to stay digital usually – when dealing with a boomer they prefer face to face communication – likely because boomers don’t speak their language in text and email and still send War and Peace e-mails and not just what they need to know. With an 8 second filter they need to cut straight to the chase .

So, where to next?

With different technical skills, different communications styles, different values, different expectations, how do we find connection between the generations and communication styles? We look for the similarities whilst acknowledging the differences.

A workplaces’ greatest aim should be to nurture an inclusive and respectful environment where everyone has a voice. As technology moves on at such speed it is clear that up to five different generations could be working together in a workplace.

How do you build teams and companies that consider all of this?

Adapt your style. This is not conceding – it is sound business sense.

If you are meeting with a boomer you may need to be more formal, a Gen Z will be more relaxed and may appreciate some information upfront to peruse to save time. Micro meetings work for Z. Boomers and Gen X will usually be the people who over run meetings, but for different reasons.

Learn from other generations. Each has its own unique and useful offering. What a boomer or X may seem as rude or too informal, a millennial or Z just sees as logical and efficient. Don’t take it personally. Nobody DID anything to deserve this or create this. It is merely evolution. Technology, society all contributed. It was inevitable.

We can learn from each generation and help them out. If you want my personal opinion on who can ‘save’ us, save the world I would have to say Gen Z. They are the only generation that have returned to direct communication but here is the kicker, it is not because they think it is the best way – it’s because they can’t be bothered to do anything else. It’s logical to them to spend the least amount of effort getting a result – they have grown up in an age of speed.

Generation Z are going to move us from a ‘passive heavy’ society to a more compassionately assertive one….if we can get them out of their room!

How do we help them to save us and change the nature of New Zealand?

Build a bridge to them whenever you can. Appreciate their succinct and direct communication when it arrives. Eat with them, in real time in real person and have a proper chat…and then listen.

They don’t believe they need the other generations for anything. The only way we are vaguely interesting to them is that we know stuff from the past. Talk to them about how you did/do things or would do things and then stand back in awe as they give you the most logical solution, (that may also seem the weirdest).

And for you personally?

  • Get used to living in a state of ‘see it, say it’.
  • Step up and speak up when you need to, instead of dis-engaging or enabling poor behaviour or things you don’t want to do if you identify with more passive.
  • If you are assertive then compassionate assertiveness will soften the edges of the delivery of your message.
  • If you are aggressive or passive aggressive then just stop it! You will always be our weakest link. No matter what the rest of us do to raise the collective consciousness of the planet you will be dragging us down.
  • Go to the compassionate assertiveness category in the blog section of for free articles. Buy the book on it called Ping Pong in the shop for $13.

It’s a pretty big job……but we can do it, if we all stick together.


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