If a hall of shame for corporate communications existed, the following true stories would be solid contenders for a display case:
The above examples — combined with high-profile missteps such as RadioShack’s e-mail layoff notices — illustrate how 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.
“Toxic communication is an organizational cancer that kills employees’ trust, respect, collaboration and above all, performance,” said Brady Wilson, co-founder of Juice and author of the recently released book, “JUICE: Release Your Company's Intelligent Energy Through Powerful Conversations.”
The four most common examples of poor leadership communication include:
The use of nonverbal messages, disapproving attitudes, critical humor or public teasing to send a veiled message to someone instead of having a direct, face-to-face conversation.
Dishonoring people when they are not there to speak for themselves by assigning malice to their actions, words or motives.
Uncovering someone’s private issue in a public forum because it’s uncomfortable for you to go face-to-face with that person.
Sending out a scathing e-mail and CCing those to whocm you wish to “leak” juicy information or sending an e-mail to request someone’s assistance and CC’ing his or her supervisor so the person is forced to comply.
Leaders also can 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, e-mail is a frequently-misused medium, Wilson said.
“Being an effective communicator means knowing which medium is best to use for specific messages,” he said. “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:
1. Use direct communication and avoid sending messages that might 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?”
2. Shut down character assassinations. To avoid becoming a character assassin, use this simple rule: 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.
3. Interrupt public redressings. 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.
4. 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.