Bad communication is a nightmare. Just ask the woman from Belgium who made news headlines years ago after driving 900 miles across Europe on what should’ve been a quick trek to the local train station—all because of a broken navigation system.1 Or the man in Alaska whose incredible story hit the newswire after he followed his GPS directions straight down a launch ramp into a harbor.2
Fortunately, these newsmakers moved on from their misadventures relatively unharmed. But imagine a whole company trying to function without good direction. Productivity would tank, frustration would skyrocket, and bad communication would turn into toxic communication fast. Why? Because when the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing—and your team members don’t know where they’re heading—they stop trusting each other and working together.
One of the hallmarks of winning companies is they create a culture of effective communication. Those leaders have learned the hard way that maintaining clear communication with their teams is way easier than cleaning up the damage toxic communication leaves behind.
So if bad communication hurts people and business, how do you keep it out of your organization? Great question! Let’s get clear on what toxic communication in the workplace looks like. Then we’ll tackle steps you can take to avoid it.
What Is Toxic Communication?
Toxic communication is repeated, unhealthy, often hostile interactions between people—both in words and action. Or it could be anything that shuts down interaction, period. How does it start? Many companies simply don’t make communication a priority. Or leadership is so arrogant or fearful that they intentionally under-communicate (see Mushroom Communication below). In either case, the lack of communication sows seeds of discontent that grow into anger then finally morph into distrust and fear.
Toxic communication can happen in any relationship, but in the workplace it often takes on these forms:
Doesn’t sound like a place you’d like to work, does it?
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Toxic Communication in the Workplace
But if you want to create a company that’s productive, fun to work for, and one you actually enjoy leading, you’ve got to look deeper at the six common communication missteps.
1. Mushroom Communication
What communication? We know it sounds weird, but it’s an easy concept to grasp because nearly all of us have experienced it. Mushroom communication is a term we use in EntreLeadership to describe the bad practice some leaders have of keeping their team members in the dark and feeding them manure. They may think they’re protecting their team by withholding information, but they’re actually creating confusion and leaving room for misunderstandings. Shade and muck lead to fungus—they don’t build a healthy business.
Think about what happens when team members catch wind of bad news but don’t hear from you about what’s going on. They get suspicious, maybe even angry, and imagine things are 10 times worse than they really are. By the end of the day, leaked whispers of the company being over budget and needing to boost sales spin into rampant rumors that the company is about to go under and half the workforce is being laid off. Woah!
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To squash drama, fear and distrust, treat your team as emotionally mature adults, then be open with them. Using these three practices will help:
- Hire thoroughbreds. In other words, fill your company with proven high performers you actually trust to be emotionally mature enough to handle honest communication.
- Communicate openly through regular team meetings. Use staff, department and one-on-one meetings to share company wins and challenges. Even if you have to let a key leader go or cut the cord on a project that’s failing, let your team know before the news leaks to the public. Never share details that would embarrass or shame others, but be clear and direct when you deliver hard news. Then, ask the team to bring any follow-up questions to their leaders.
- Err on the side of oversharing. One of the most important times to communicate is during trouble. Always use class and care, but give more details than you’re really comfortable with. Is it scary? Abso-freaking-lutely. But having a backstabbing, immature company is even scarier. Let your team know they’re part of a special company and you expect them to hold the sensitive information with maturity.
2. Not Listening to Your Team
When you’re the chief everything officer, you don’t have much time for chitchat. And you certainly can’t entertain the thoughts and opinions of every team member all the time. But you do need systems in place that give everyone a chance to feel safe and heard.
Start by making a personal commitment to use a healthy communication style that encourages others to be open and honest with you. Then, take these steps to show you value team input:
- Use a team member weekly report tool. This is a one-page report every team member completes for their leader each week to share their morale, stress level, workload, and weekly high and low. Weekly reports will quickly become a big opportunity for you to thank team members for their input or reach out to those who are having a tough time in their personal lives. Both will go a long way in building trust. Plus, if you need to talk more about something they wrote, you can follow up with a meeting request or talk it through in your next one-on-one meeting.
- Prioritize one-on-one meetings. At least every two weeks, meet with your direct reports for 30–60 minutes. You’ll use this time to build rapport, hear what they’re working on, and help them work through any blockers. This should be a safe, confidential space for team members to get help and feel heard.
3. Allowing Gossip
One of the slyest enemies to your business isn’t a bad economy, low sales or even your fiercest competitor. It’s gossip—as in when anyone on your team discusses a work-related problem with another team member who can’t solve the problem. Gossip is the number one source of rumors, bad attitudes, mean spirits and full-on division between people. Shut it down before it ruins your culture. Here’s how:
- Take a look in the mirror. Are you talking negatively about someone on your team to anyone other than a leader who can help you solve the problem? For better or worse, your team will follow your example.
- Create a no-gossip policy for your company. Then, schedule an all-staff meeting to outline what gossip is and share your no-gossip policy. Let everyone know gossip is now a fireable offense because you’re committed to protecting the well-being of every team member. The new rule in town is that negatives go up, and positives go all around.
4. Avoiding Tough Conversations
Unless you’ve got the personality of ice-cold Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, you probably don’t enjoy charging directly into hard conversations. The fear of hurting someone’s feelings is real. But here’s the thing: You hurt people even more when you avoid tough conversations. The last thing you want is to inwardly churn with frustration until one day your feelings and words explode all over everyone.
When you have the tough conversations, you’re actually serving your team members. How else will they know they need to make a change unless you’re honest with them about the problems you’re seeing? Is that easy? No way. But great leaders put what’s best for their team members ahead of their comfort. Great leaders are servant leaders.
When you overlook a team member’s bad work or crappy attitude (that everyone else sees and hates) that’s called sanctioned incompetence. And it sends a message that it’s okay for some people to mail it in while others pick up the slack. For the sake of everyone on your team, have hard conversations quickly and directly. Here are a few tips to help you:
- Get the meeting on your calendar. You can’t procrastinate if an appointment is scheduled. You should always correct in private with enough time to work through the issue carefully.
- Be direct, but keep your emotions in check. Your goal is to course-correct and teach, not to embarrass or demoralize someone.
- Stay on course. It’s normal to want to shift the uncomfortable conversation to a different subject. But the only way to solve the problem is to stay focused on it. To be unclear is to be unkind.
“If you allow people to misbehave, underachieve, have a bad attitude, gossip and generally avoid excellence, please don’t expect to attract and keep great talent.” — Dave Ramsey
5. Not Defining What Winning Looks Like
Imagine getting a new job you’re super excited about then realizing you don’t have any idea who’s going to guide you or what winning looks like. That’s what team members feel like when they don’t have role clarity. It sends a message that they aren’t important, and it’s a setup for failure.
Without clearly defined roles and expectations, your team members will grind through high frustration, hurt feelings and terrible inefficiency. You don’t need a fortune-teller to see that won’t end well. So let’s talk about ways you can help your team feel confident in their roles and be raring to go:
- Create a Key Results Areas (KRA). A KRA is a simple document that sets clear expectations for what winning looks like in a team member’s role. In just one page, every team member spells out what they primarily do in their normal, everyday work and what results they’re responsible for. It’s a clear road map that helps your team work and win together.
- Develop an onboarding plan. Onboarding is so much more than just walking a new hire to their desk and wishing them good luck. It’s a well-prepared plan that shows them you’re excited and ready for them to contribute to the team. Your onboarding plan will be unique to your company culture, but it should include these key components:
- A welcome email sent the day they accept the job
- A ready workspace with the tools and supplies they’ll need for their first day
- A welcome from the leader they’ll report to as soon as they arrive, even if someone else will actually help them settle in
- A set system for completing all their initial paper work
- Your commitment that the work you told them they’d be doing is the work you actually expect them to do—no bait and switch
6. Failure to Lead With Purpose
Maybe you’ve heard the saying that everything rises and falls on leadership. It’s true. There’s no such thing as a spineless leader—especially when you’re fighting to keep toxic communication out of your business. So your final challenge is to lead with purpose. Remind your team often why your business exists, what you value, and how your team’s work makes the world better. Every decision you make and opportunity you pursue has to line up with your mission, vision and values.
What happens to the companies that lose direction or fail to share a clear direction with their team members? They end up crossing boundaries they never imagined—kind of like our friends from Belgium and Alaska. Only worse. And their team members feel like cogs in a wheel doing life-sucking work. Yuck! Nobody wants that. To help keep your business on the right track, revisit these business basics:
- Own your mission. Your business, along with every business on the planet, needs a mission statement. In just a few words, it tells the world and your team who you are, who you are not, and what you stand for. It’s also your out-of-bounds marker, guarding you from tempting opportunities that are just plain wrong for where you’re headed and how you’re called to impact the world.
- Set your vision. Your vision statement is a picture of what the world would look like if your organization was 100% successful in fulfilling its mission. A great vision is directly tied to your mission and gives your team a clear path to where you want to end up. Then each team member can actually see how their role will help the company get there.
- Share your story. Let your team members know how your business got where it is today, including your hardships, sacrifices and victories. Include all the times you’ve refused to quit and where you’re headed next. Sharing your story unifies your team and shows them in yet another way that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It also reminds you of your humble beginnings and how hard, honest work creates momentum.
In EntreLeadership, we call this idea the Momentum Theorem: Focused intensity, over time, multiplied by God, creates unstoppable momentum. It’s the fuel behind our strong work ethic and success.
- Repeat everything. Repetition is king if you want someone to hear and retain what you’re saying. One and done never works. So use your team meetings, one-on-ones and even your hallway conversations to share your mission, vision, values and story to strengthen the connection between your team and the important work your business is doing!
Companies who’ve learned the hard way will tell you this: If you blow off communication, your company will end up with a bad reputation and become a place no one—including you—wants to work. But when you fight for healthy communication, it becomes one of your most powerful tools.
Start With Purpose
Clear communication in the workplace starts with your mission. It’s the North Star that guides everything you do in your business.
Need help mapping yours out? Check out the step-by-step EntreLeadership Mission Statement Mapper.