Leaders must confront dysfunctional communication as soon as it occurs

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Craig heard a story from his colleagues about some bad behavior on the part of a coworker who was a relative newcomer to the company. He sent an email that was extremely critical of the coworker to the leader of the organization stating that, although he hadn’t witnessed the behavior himself, he’d heard stories from several people. Craig expressed his outrage over what some were saying had occurred, and reminded the boss that people had been fired for lesser offenses.

Craig suggested that since he was not going to be at the next meeting of the executive team to address the issue himself, the boss bring up the coworker’s behavior. The leader proceeded to forward Craig’s email to all of his executives to inform them that this issue was being placed on the agenda. The boss requested that the man appear in front of the entire management group at their upcoming meeting at which time they would be discussing his behavior.

Some of you may have surmised that real problem was that the story about the coworker’s misdeeds wasn’t true. The man explained what had actually happened, and it became clear that there were people in the company who had spun a story that was wildly exaggerated. Others had spread the falsehoods in their zeal to find fault with the newcomer.

When organizations allow the senior members to “eat their young,” they create a dynamic that kills people’s investment in the group. In addition to destroying camaraderie and teamwork, such companies have difficulty recruiting and retaining good new people. Although scapegoating gives more senior employees some fleeting sense of superiority, without influxes of new energy and ideas, organizations become stagnant and start to decline.

Threatening and humiliating the least powerful people in the organization is a way for the senior members to blame others for problems that are occurring rather than having to look at their own responsibility for having created the current challenges. After all, it’s been the way they’ve run the organization that’s brought it to this point.

Even though the leader later apologized to the man, he had participated in the process of spreading rumors first and then gathering facts. The boss’s behavior overtly condoned the practice of what some organization’s term “lateral violence,” which is defined as behavior that degrades, humiliates, or otherwise shows a lack of respect for the worth and dignity of an individual.

Studies show that the purpose of lateral violence is to injure the self-esteem of the individual who has been targeted. The message to the newcomer from the old guard is that people who try to do well aren’t as good as they think they are. But why would a senior group of people want to sabotage someone’s feelings of self-confidence?

The research reveals several disturbing underlying issues in groups that tolerate lateral violence: Because some people in the organization suffer from disturbingly low levels of self-worth, they feel compelled to pull people down to their level by bullying them into submission. The group becomes pessimistic and angry because this dysfunctional dynamic renders them unable to resolve problems, and they lack the self-confidence to confront the bullies. This allows those who lack sufficient self-esteem to face their own shortcomings to attack anyone they fear will show them up.

Contrast this to people with healthy self-esteem: They manage their own emotions by dealing with issues through respectful communication designed to find a mutually satisfactory solution. Someone with good self-esteem shows genuine empathy for the feelings of other people because they know that’s the only way to develop and sustain healthy relationships. Lastly, they’re able to handle problems by looking at how they contribute to troubles and they learn lessons that correct the situation.

Eliminating lateral violence requires confronting people with low levels of confidence whose inappropriate expressions of anger and bullying behaviors are creating a toxic organizational environment. Leaders must learn to recognize lateral violence and find the courage to implement a zero tolerance policy toward those who perpetuate it.

The first step is to confront dysfunctional communication as soon as it occurs. Though it’s difficult to do, it’s imperative for leaders to interrupt the individual who’s acting inappropriately to prevent their hostile impulses from destroying the group’s ability to have constructive conversations. The leader must insist that people take the time to ponder what they say and only speak when they can express themselves in a non-judgmental and non-argumentative tone. Then issues can be resolved by dealing with facts, not feelings.