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Leadership Communication Tips to Fight Workplace Toxicity

Posted by Sandy Yu on 11.26.2019


Nobody wants to work in a toxic work environment. As a leader, you hold the culture and attitude of your workplace as one of your most important areas of focus.

But managing conflict, identifying issues, and keeping your cool can be a full-time job -- and exhausting at that. We reached out to industry experts to find out their most effective communication tips for maintaining a positive work environment to give you a leg-up on keeping toxicity out of your office. Here is what they had to say:

Understand your role

Copy of Copy of 200x200 headshot (43)Leaders plays three critical roles in combating toxicity in the workplace. First, they must communicate clear behavioral expectations for how employees are to treat one another. Second, they must display these behaviors in all of their actions and words. Finally, they must take swift action to address any violations of these expectations.

One employee acting in a toxic way is a like a cancer. If you don't catch it and treat it early, it will kill your culture.

Jason Lauritsen, Keynote Speaker, Author, and Consultant at Jason Lauritsen 

Be attentive and proactive

Copy of Copy of 200x200 headshot (44)Step in as soon as possible. Research finds that workplace bullying escalates from a single incident of incivility. Because no one steps in, the individual understands that he or she can get away with it. Over time, the behavior gets more and more frequent and aggressive. Managers and leaders need to step in when they see someone engaging in seemingly small rude or uncivil behaviors if they want to keep toxicity out.

Incivility in and of itself is costly for organizations.

Unfortunately, many managers aren't trained on how to step in. They are cautioned to look out for harassment and to resolve conflict in their team if it occurs, but most managers haven't received any training on exactly how to do that (except to involve HR). If managers are going to step in early on, they need training and communication skills for that very specific scenario.

Offer training that addresses the anxieties around stepping in. It's not natural for humans to throw themselves in front of a bus -- it goes against our survival instincts. They first need information on how to address these situations, then they need to be given tools on exactly what to say and when. 

Catherine Mattice Zundel, Founder/CEO, Civility Partners

Work consistently to build genuine relationships

Bill PrasadLeaders should meet with every direct report two times a month for a minimum of 15 minutes. In the first meeting, the leader owns the agenda. In the second meeting, the direct report owns the agenda.

It doesn't matter if the direct report wants to tell you about their kid's soccer game -- have the meeting.

I have worked for two start-up psychiatric hospitals where I have had to launch programming and hire staff. Start-ups are extremely stressful. Hospitals can be a hotbed of rumors. One of the ways I helped the new team hold it together was to meet with them individually. The result was a well-oiled machine when the admission doors were opened.

Bill Prasad LPC-S, LCDC, Prasad Counseling and Training

Approach conflict in the right mindset

Ben WalkerIn my organization, everyone has to be sitting down and in a relaxed state of mind before we have any sort of conversation that could turn confrontational. If the tone gets dicey, body language changes, insults are thrown, or anything other form of confrontation starts, I personally de-escalate the conversation so we can start over. As long as I stay calm, cool, collected, and in charge, we stay on task.

My old business coach taught me what to say in these situations. Start by restating the issue in the words first used. Then convey that you understand their frustration. Next, describe how the issue is perceived from the other perspective and ask them if they understand the conflict.

If they do, you can usually work out the issue pretty quickly.

Benjamin K. Walker, Founder & CEO, Transcription Outsourcing, LLC

Make people significant

Larry SternbergMake people the highest priority for every manager, every leader, and the organization as a whole.

Select managers and leaders who genuinely care about people. Then, create metrics that recognize and reward managers for helping the people on their teams succeed and grow, making the development of your people a priority.

Encourage managers to accept people as they are, celebrate their differences, and focus on their strengths. Mandate equal opportunity with performance as the only differentiator.

Institutionalize the individualized approach. Make diversity and inclusion real by teaching managers to treat each person as an individual, not as a stereotyped member of some group.

Give managers freedom to make things fair, even if that means making exceptions. When people encounter exceptional circumstances, they might require exceptional responses. Exceptional responses are likely to be different (not equal) for different people. But everyone can expect that managers will extend an exceptional response that fits their exceptional circumstances.

Larry Sternberg, Board member and Fellow, Talent Plus

Focus on creating a healthy workplace environment

Norhanie PangulimaThe workplace is fundamentally a social environment. When it's a healthy one, employees can cooperate productively and excel as individuals without being pulled down by toxic behaviors that lead to doubt, selfishness, and negativity.

Leaders should make a conscious effort to give credit when it’s due, and encourage team sharing. Additionally, they should encourage an open office culture. If employees are hesitant to ask for help, there's a possibility that it is fear keeping them back. While boundaries are essential, it pays to encourage employees to ask for assistance when needed.

Norhanie Pangulima, Content Marketing Executive, SIA Enterprises

Understand the root of the problem

Mark WebsterIt's important to remember that when dealing with poor performance, there is always more than meets the eye. Demanding answers and refusing to understand that your workforce are human beings with their own individual needs is a very dangerous approach to communication. Be sure to paint a full picture of why poor performance issues are occurring, and discuss things fully with the team member who is struggling. Often, you'll find an underlying reason.

Mark Webster, Co-Founder, Authority Hacker

Engage your team

Carlos CastelánPoor managerial communication impacts employee engagement by making team members feel removed from decisions and devoid of any sense of ownership. It can lead to role ambiguity and heightened stress or anxiety from lack of feedback, and ultimately leads to talent drain and low employee engagement.

Set a clear vision for employees that provides an understanding of why their work is valuable. Furthermore, help your teams set clear individual goals.

Reinforcing the vision and goals through regular communication, both in a team setting and one-on-one, will help employees remember how their work furthers the organization’s mission and increases engagement by making the work feel meaningful.

Carlos Castelán, Managing Director, The Navio Group

Nip negativity in the bud

Polly KayBe proactive about identifying and calling out toxic behaviors in their earliest stages.

If one of your employees is continually negative, difficult, passive-aggressive, or otherwise apt to bring others down, it usually doesn't develop overnight. They begin by testing the water (often, inadvertently and unconsciously as few toxic people actually realize that their behavior is a problem). Then, it escalates over time.

You must be willing to point out toxic behaviors as soon as they’re noticed, and be able to do so confidently and assertively.

Take the toxic employee aside privately and bring up specific events and statements to stay ahead of conflict.

Polly Kay, Senior Marketing Manager, English Blinds 

Develop an understanding of communication styles

Janice BoothEven if we speak the same language, we often fail at communication. Invest time to help your team understand how to communicate effectively all the time with everyone on the team. 

Lead your team to fill out a work style and communication style self-assessment to learn about their strengths and weaknesses. Then, explore in detail what motivates your team, and develop strategies for recognizing different styles and how to communicate effectively with each style.

Janice Booth, Founder & CEO, the Teambuilding & Communication KIT


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Topics: employee communication, workplace communication, leadership communication

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