Maybe It's Not Them, It's You: Avoid These Communication Habits that Create Toxic Environments
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Maybe It's Not Them, It's You: Avoid These Communication Habits that Create Toxic Environments

Recently, Away Luggage Company CEO Steph Korey stepped down after an investigation by the Verge highlighted the company’s toxic work culture. From Korey reportedly using Slack to publicly critique work and label an employee “brain dead” to sending late-night messages  — Away is a case study in how not to communicate in the workplace.

Like the Away company, if you have a communication problem in the workplace, chances are: 

    • Work is being duplicated (or not done at all).
    • The finished product isn’t what you expected. 
    • There is a high turnover rate. 
    • There are recurring errors or delays in products or services. 
    • Your team is silent in meetings and no one speaks up to offer ideas or share their experiences. 

While it’s often second nature for managers to blame “lazy” or “incompetent” employees, frequent communication issues are often a symptom of a much deeper problem. A bad system, an outdated process or pattern of behavior from the company’s higher-ups are often the culprits. 

Here’s how to recognize and respond to toxic communication habits:

Judging and Name-Calling

Eliminate judgment, personal attacks, and criticism, and only provide constructive feedback. 

For instance, saying “You’re a bad writer. Your proposal confused the investor,” would be considered judging. However, saying, “On the next draft of your proposal, use graphs to highlight the data to make it easier to read,” would be considered constructive feedback because it provides specific advice that helps you improve. 

Sending or Responding to Passive Aggressive Emails

The gig is up, most of us know anger or frustration is behind statements like, “As previously stated, or per my last email.” Yet too many times, we press “send” on sarcastic or rude emails without pausing to consider how our words may be interpreted.

Even sending emails without a greeting may set a negative tone and shape the recipient’s perception of you. Always use a salutation in an email, otherwise, there’s a chance the recipient may think you’re barking orders at them. 

Having A “Just Fix It” Mentality

Typically, the “just fix it” mentality is a temporary fix or Band-Aid approach to cover up problems. Eventually, you’ll run into the same problem again because it addresses the symptoms of a problem and not the root cause.

While often used as a way to develop or coach employees, the “fix-it” mentality breeds a culture of silence and burnout because employees believe speaking up about the real problem won’t make a difference.

Reframe and shift your perspective. For instance, instead of saying,  “Production numbers have dropped, I need you to work harder,” say, “What process can be fixed or improved and how can I support you? Or how can we increase productivity to meet our quarterly production goals?” This shifts the discussion from blaming people to exploring solutions. 

Interrupting and Overtalking

Constantly interrupting your colleagues is the fastest way to alienate or show them you don’t value their contribution. Take a deep breath before interrupting, and wait 5-6 seconds. Then, before you share your thoughts, reflect by summarizing what they just said. 

Avoiding Eye Contact

Effective communication is the foundation of all success but words are only one part of the process. Not looking someone in the eye may unintentionally communicate you’re uninterested in what the person has to say or you think you’re better than the person you’re listening to.

Being Condescending or Talking Down to People

Whether it’s microaggressions (e.g., you’re so articulate,) or backhanded compliments (e.g., your weekly status report was on point. I wish you were as organized in your presentations to the client.) — toxic communication takes an emotional toll on an employee. 

You can either respond only to the positive or address it head-on by using an assertive communication technique: “When you do (X) in situation (Y), I feel (Z), and I would like for you to (what do you want to happen?). 

On the other hand, we all have unconscious bias. As human beings, we all communicate differently. Challenging your assumptions, being open to feedback, and even taking a communications style assessment can help you understand how your behavior impacts others. It can also help you identify ways to adapt your preferred style to meet the needs of different people.