Organizations rely on teams to improve productivity, work quality, employee engagement, organizational harmony and attitudes. However, these group environments aren’t always positive. Negative communication can occur if not well managed, leading to frustration, distraction and employee departure. Ultimately, negative communication hurts, distracts and disrupts teamwork. As an organizational leader, it is up to you to ensure your team dynamics are positive and productive.
Here are three things to help ensure your teams are staying positive and productive:
Identify it: What does negative communication look like? Negative communication doesn't feel good — to you or to others. It can be done unintentionally or intentionally — and can be an individual or collective behavior.
Typical behaviors include:
•Interruptions: when an individual disrupts the turn of another by speaking and preventing the individual from completing their thoughts; having side conversations with other team members that are not related to the topic and become disruptive to the group.
•Complaining: an expression of unpleasantness and is a natural reaction to dissatisfaction at work.
•Self-promotion: when one excessively speaks of their own strengths, talents and superiority to make oneself more appealing and avoid topics where someone else can be the expert.
•Empty talk: shifting the conversation to something unrelated or irrelevant to derail the conversation.
•Withholding: a form of aggression where important details and information are not shared; withholding can also refer to holding back efforts or not accepting responsibility.
•Blaming: placing failure, mistakes or errors on an individual, either in their presence or without their knowledge (backstabbing).
Know these traits and be on the lookout because they could create problems for you, your team and your organization.
Know it's a problem: I’ve noticed some of these behaviors — is it really a big deal?
Yes. Even one individual can create a problem for group dynamics. In the short term, negative communication can lead to complaining circles, decreased motivation and poor decision-making — creating unproductive and inefficient teams. Long term, it can ultimately destroy relationships and the ability for the team to work cooperatively. There may be more conflict and less open communication, leading to lower job satisfaction and higher employee turnover.
Do something about it: Identify the negative contributors and address it.
Be aware. Is it one person or a sub-group of team members? Is it occurring in new or established teams? Does it occur more than positive communication? Perhaps the individual doesn't realize this is happening. Communicate with the individuals to identify the behaviors and offer coaching for how to adjust communication to be more positive. How to do this?
•Have an individual and private conversation. Always assume the best. The team member may have good intentions and doesn’t realize how his or her communication may be harming the team.
•Give specific examples. To really make a difference, provide specific examples. Such as, “Emily, yesterday, we had a conversation as a team about how to drive sales growth. You may not have realized you were doing this, but you kept interrupting Sam and telling him why his ideas wouldn't work. I really appreciate your perspective, and would like to work with you on how you could share those opinions in a way that might be better received by the team.”
•Make an action plan. Provide coaching to help the team member review and adjust negative communication patterns over time. This could be through a weekly meeting where you and the individual work through examples from the most recent team meeting. Continue to encourage the employee to conduct self-evaluation, while as a leader, you also provide ongoing feedback. Give access to resources to further support your employee.
•Be patient and supportive. Adjusting communication style can be extremely difficult for many. Allow the time, space and support to work with your team member on this important development opportunity. As a leader, continue to provide open and honest feedback.
•Celebrate successes: Your team members will hopefully be open to this feedback and will work hard to adjust communication styles. When this happens — celebrate it. Offer positive reinforcement and encourage their continued professional development in communication.
• Know when to move on. As a leader, you also need to know when it’s time to move on. Perhaps, a team member is too harmful to your organizational culture and productivity and is not willing to change. Sometimes, you have to make the difficult decision of evaluating the team member's employment with your organization.
Positive communication does include critiques. Constructive criticism and discussions on improving should be a part of team dialogue. Offering positive feedback and the counter perspective are what teams need to improve.
Be the leader who ensures teams create positive and successful outcomes — know, identify and do something about negative communication when it occurs. Communication is powerful — make sure it's creating the intended results.
Rachel Sonnentag is a strategic communications consultant at O’Connor Connective.