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Cancerous Communications

Stepping into a new leadership role within my industry, I walked into a learning institute with some personnel dysfunctions. The CEO, a kind and generous family man, asked me to identify and diagnose "cancers" within the team - specific behaviors decaying productivity and perhaps obstructing the flow of his goals for growth. It was the first time I considered words and actions as "cancerous" but it made sense, as behaviors can be nameless and faceless, and without proper diagnosis can erode the health of a workplace ecosystem.

Because I did not hold a history with the team, being an outside hire, my approach offered a mediator role and a reduction of bias. I was simply passionate about the industry, dedicated to the advancement of education, and hired to help build and strengthen multiple teams. What I found within the first 30 days, was symptoms of constant passive-aggression. Little verbal assaults, but many unspoken assassinations. Hidden thorns and untraceable jabs. Team members would leave notes on one another's desks, criticizing teaching methods, poking at inadequacies, or feeding into workplace gossip. During team meetings, no one was airing frustrations or making much eye contact, yet during the work week, much energy was spent making frustrations and resentments nonverbally clear.

Passive aggressive behaviors in the workplace are often the result of a lack of freedom, courage, invitation, or personal empowerment to share negative responses. One of the most dangerous cultures a company - or any relationship - can unknowingly create, is a culture that discourages transparency, shames negative feedback, or disregards members' voiced experiences.

"Great leaders make space for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the comfortable and the uncomfortable, because a good leader knows how to learn something from everything."

Before my work in communications systems, I had believed the issues within this organization were mere personality clashes between select individuals. And so, as the new department head, I made space to hear each person and engage as simply a mediator and active listener. However, the notes I took started to reveal less about a personality riff and more about establishing junctures for healthy discourse to exist. In order to begin cultivating a culture of healthy communication, I knew my work had to begin with empowering everyone to voice concerns to the group, within our meetings, and as a diverse, complex, but united team. Setting specific times for feedback started to relieve the need to act in passive-aggressive ways.

Through the practice of applying communication flows, the comfort of passive-aggressive behaviors and long-held personnel conflicts are disrupted, causing them to jostle, shift, and move. To offer a routine juncture for critique and feedback is to embrace the value of conflict - an essential developmental opportunity for growth. An organizational culture that proactively works to prevent communication blockage and buildup, establishes value and validation of the humanity that is tethered to tension. In regard to my team, applying the flow of a communications system allowed frustrations to find their way out of our daily workflow; we were able to effectively address more concerns than we originally had diagnosed, collaboratively find solutions, and in turn, increased the value of our differences by focusing on the issue at hand - instead of questioning the messenger.

In Keys to strategic organizational communication, Conrad and Poole's systems principles identify practices that can help assess organizational challenges, provide dialogue opportunities for strengthening team dynamics, and infuse communication flows with shared value for improving a steady forward motion. Consider how these principles might improve your own personal and professional leadership.

1. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Increasing the value of diversity supports differences and provides considerations to unique vantage points. Taking time and making space to ask about why and how choices were made offers learning opportunities for everyone at every level.

2. Cause and effect relationships are complex. While personalities might be an underlying factor, actions and behaviors also stem from different responsibilities in responding to different issues. Looking at the budget, resources, or scheduling issues, can shed more light on the root of a challenge.

3. Find the right levers. Understanding an imbalance of influence, opportunity, or power within a system, helps equalize levels of responsibility within each lever for expressing grievances and offering solutions.

4. Don't just focus on the system itself. Taking a bird's eye view of the company serves as a reminder of our role within a larger system of cogs moving the organization forward.

5. Systems adapt or die. As the flagship for future additional locations, and knowing we were just starting out, we viewed systems-making as rough drafts, not final presentations. This offered us the flexibility and freedom to shift and change as we grew. The building of a framework also helped to analyze our most necessary and valued communication flows.

6. History is important. Without much history, a new team can focus on the opportunity to create something wonderful and fulfilling, for everyone at every level. For us, understanding that we were actively engaged in writing our history extended grace towards the drive of perfectionism and "getting it right" the first time around. Knowing what has worked, or caused wreckage, is also beneficial - discuss them all!

7. Systems must learn to renew themselves. Tensions are unavoidable. When we learn to embrace obstacles and expect the presence of challenges, our frustration takes a back seat to curiosity. And when we practice confronting dysfunction, we are working to form a flexible and renewable system that naturally increases the opportunity for continued sustainability.

The value of systems thinking is that it provides a focus on the framework, allowing for human relations to flow within and throughout, while also providing an adjustable structure that adapts as it advances. If you are an established organization, consider what junctures could provide an opportunity to "clear the air." As a leader, and perhaps remaining outside of daily chit-chat, you might be surprised to hear what others see as blockage and unnecessary buildup. For new establishments, consider embracing the absence of culture and prioritize designing one that supports a healthy flow of communication.

If you need some outside eyes to inspect your communications framework, diagnose dysfunction, and offer prescriptions - I'd love to work with you. Not everyone enjoys confrontation, so it can be helpful to bring in someone less personally involved to assess challenges with the least bias. I would also love to hear how any of these principles helped you or your team! Whatever you do, just keep the dialogue open and flowing. Keep talking about challenges. Keep confronting dysfunction before it has time to grow and calcify. Encourage people to find the right language to properly name issues. Great leaders make space for the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and the comfortable and the uncomfortable because a good leader knows how to learn something from everything.




Conrad, C., & Poole, M. S. (2005). Keys to strategic organizational communication. In

Strategic organizational communication: In a global economy (pp. 32–38). Thomson Wadsworth.


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