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March 16, 2021

Identifying Communication Dysfunction at Work

In any discussion of conflict competence in the workplace, damaging communication patterns come up as an issue. Damaging communication is preceded by its forefather, dysfunctional communication.


Dysfunction leads to damage as surely as water makes things wet. And at work, dysfunctional communications typically begin through “the grapevine” and come about in five different forms:

Gossip—includes idle talk or rumor, especially about personal or private affairs of other employees, co-workers, customers, etc.

Rumor—involves some kind of a statement whose veracity is not quickly, or ever, confirmed. Depending on the organizational structure and history, and where rumors originate in the hierarchy, rumors spread intentionally can serve as propaganda to manipulate employees or teams.

Innuendo—an innuendo is an insinuation or intimation about a person or thing, especially of a disparaging or derogatory nature. Most innuendos start as “innocent” jokes and tend to fall in the gap between what people think about other people’s behavior and the reality of that behavior.

Tall Tales—a tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if they were true and factual. In the workplace, tall tales almost always involve whispers and can seem like rumors, but usually, they are driven by external factors or pressures on the organization.

Myth—a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind assumed their present form, although, in a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story. Myths are at the bottom of many organizational models and serve to explain occurrences that people otherwise think they have no explanation for. The fact is, myths do the most long-term damage to an organization, because of their corrosive nature on innovation and through creating stubborn resistance to change.

When people become engaged in any of the above communication styles at work, they may interfere (innuendo) or damage (rumor, gossip) relationships, stymie innovation (myths), and creating situations ripe for lawsuits (innuendo) without being aware of it. In essence, when employees, managers, and others are unconscious, unskilled at communicating effectively, they are displaying competency (at the novice level in most cases) at passive-aggressively creating conflict.


There are a few ways out of this:

  • The way to get out of this is to role model the behavior that you would like to see in other people at work, particularly if you are a boss, manager, or supervisor.
  • The other way out of this is to monitor your communication style to determine if you’re engaging in any of the five forms.
  • The last way out of this is to build a culture on open communication, getting information right the first time, and trusting adults to behave in a mature fashion—and removing those who don’t (or can’t) from positions in the organization quickly.

However, if your organization can’t do the steps above, then the only other solution is to train the people that you already have.

H/T to David Burkus on this one.

Article written by Jesan Sorrells
Jesan Sorrells serves as the CEO of HSCT Publishing, the home of leadership development platforms, Leadership ToolBox, LeaderBuzz, and LeadingKeys..Backed by over 7 years of direct, in-person training experience with over 15,000+ managers and supervisors across multiple industry verticals, LeadingKeys, Leadership Toolbox, and LeaderBuzz deliver leadership and talent solutions to managers and supervisors of SMB's.
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