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How to Avoid 'Toxic Communication'
November 28 2006 - North American companies are suffering from "toxic communication," say experts
at Juice Inc. (, a consulting firm for leaders who want to boost their organizational energy levels and employee engagement. They suggest that if a hall of shame for corporate communications existed, the following true stories would be solid contenders for a display case:
- At a national sales conference, a CEO unexpectedly and publicly dresses down his corporate sales team for not meeting its sales targets - figures that the CEO had previously devised and given to the sales force without their input.
- Employees at a growing start-up firm enjoy an innovative work culture, filled with office friendships - but the atmosphere quickly devolves when candid feedback is suppressed in order to preserve friendships. It's replaced by widespread complaining and discontent, done behind others' backs.
- A CEO sends out a holiday policy change that varies for each employee level of the organization. Senior executives get a specific holiday off with pay, while middle managers can take a day off in lieu; and administrative support will be docked the day's pay. The policy is communicated in a single e-mail sent to all of the organization's 5000 employees.
Brady Wilson, co-founder of Juice and author of JUICE: Release Your Company's Intelligent Energy
Through Powerful Conversations cites four common examples of poor leadership communication:
- Indirect Communication - the use of non-verbal messages, disapproving attitudes, critical humor or public teasing to send a veiled message to someone, instead of having a direct, face-to-face conversation.
- Character Assassination - dishonoring someone when they are not there to speak for themselves by assigning malice to their actions, words or motives.
- Public Re-dressing - uncovering someone's private issue in a public forum because it's uncomfortable for you to go face to face with them.
- e-Stabbing - sending out a scathing email and CC'ing those you wish to 'leak' juicy information to; or, sending an email to request someone's assistance and CC'ing their supervisor so the person is forced to comply.
Wilson suggests that leaders can also drain morale by offering too much or too little communication, by delivering it too late or distorting it, or by using the wrong vehicle to convey the message. In an age of virtual teams and intranets, email is a frequently-misused medium.
Brady Wilson commented:
"Being an effective communicator means knowing which medium is best to use for specific messages. Direct feedback is sometimes misinterpreted to have a negative connotation ... yet a face-to-face conversation conveys the greatest amount of emotion, trust, and understanding."
Juice recommends four ways to be a "toxin-free" communicator:
- Use direct communication and avoid sending messages that may leave ambiguity in the mind of the receiver. Practice "XYZ" communication:
"When you do X, it makes me feel Y. Could I ask you to do Z instead?"
- Shut down character assassinations. While speaking about someone to others, picture them beside you and only say the things you would say if they were present. If you are a victim of toxic communication, you will have to invest in direct, face-to-face conversations with the person who started the toxic message and those infected.
- Interrupt public re-dressings. If you are a manager, don't discipline people in front of their peers unless the issue absolutely must be addressed publicly, in the moment, to avert a greater disaster.
- Go face-to-face with e-Stabbers. Help them understand the implications of using technology as a fault-broadcaster, a power-lever or a rear-covering device. One or two face-to-face conversations with a person like that will provide a healthy disincentive.
Brady Wilson added:
"Toxic communication is an organizational cancer that kills employees'
trust, respect, collaboration, and above all, performance."