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  • Writer's pictureThomas E. Anderson, II

Communicating in Times of Change Manages Dysfunctional Behavior

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Picture it. You have taken the stage, standing behind the podium for the annual team meeting of your company’s managers, team leaders and employees. As you begin to speak, an annoying high-pitched squealing noise draws the attention away from your well-planned speech as everyone covers their ears to avoid further discomfort. The sound that captures their attention (as well as your own) is identified as feedback – and not the good kind. The sound technician activates the feedback silencer and once again, all eyes - and ears - are focused on your speech. Now, instead of the screeching sounds, your feedback takes the form of your voice coming through the floor monitors and speakers.

As disruptive as this scene sounds this type of negative feedback is common in organizations. However, it shows up in the dysfunctional behavior of employees. Employees communicate their displeasure through dysfunctional behavior. In the Secrets of Facilitation, Michael Wilkinson notes that feedback should be ascribed to the behavior and not the person. In the moment, with emotions involved and under tight deadlines and budgetary constraints with the effectiveness of the company at stake – it becomes less difficult to point fingers than when everything is peachy keen.

Dysfunctional behavior is found in both low and high performers. Think about that person that comes late and leaves early. Or the person who brings other work to meetings. Or even the person who vents about a managers new policy to a co-worker around the water cooler. This is all feedback. Unorganized feedback that does not benefit the organization is dysfunctional. Ineffective communication is a major root cause of much organizational dysfunction. Dysfunctional behavior does not discriminate based on how high an employee performs, or how much power he has or the degree to which she disagrees with a new policy. Bad behavior, regardless of position, performance or policy, affects leaders and followers at every organizational level.

As the prefix dys- means impaired, bad, ill, or abnormal, dysfunctional behavior is impaired or less than perfect behavior. Impaired behavior communicates a problem happening that involves team members. Teams are designed around functional areas and dysfunctional behavior impairs the productivity, not just of the individual with the problem, but also for the entire team. A leader’s job includes detecting, rectifying and preventing dysfunction and beginning to repair the root after experiencing and analyzing the symptoms. Communication is essential to completing this process.

The Value of Leader-Follower Communication

Receiving high-quality, frequent, “actionable” feedback is what most employees expect from their employers. In fact, this type of feedback has become a part of each employee’s psychological contract, or a set of beliefs about the reciprocal obligations between a staff member and their employing organization. Leader-follower communication and feedback are two areas that employees seek interaction with supervisors. Research shows that 55% of recent MBA grads believed that some aspect of their psychological contract had been broken in the past two years. In fact, leader-follower communication is one of the most critical and valued types of communication that occurs in organizational life.

Evaluating Your Communication Style

Communication Style is an extension of your leadership style. The way you communicate reflects your degree of task-interpersonal orientation. Task-oriented leaders communicate about concrete tasks. Interpersonal-oriented leaders talk to build and maintain relationships. Transformational leaders rally people toward the picture of a better future through change analogies. A relationship orientated leader establishes mutual trust & respect. He also listens to employees’ needs (p.69). Motivated by accomplishment, a task-oriented leader provides clear directions and sets performance standards (p.69).

Qualities such as behavior and leadership style can be modified. Your communication style also falls in this category and can be modified based on situations. Two methods to modify communication style is using the follower’s readiness level and leader-member relations. The follower readiness level method takes follower characteristics into consideration. Hersey and Blanchard (Daft, 2011, pp.73-77) list four leader styles: telling (S1), selling (S2), participating (S3), and delegating (S4). Followers are evaluated based on their readiness level which include R1 – Low, R2 – Moderate, R3 – High, and R4 – Very High.

When How You Communicate Just Isn’t Enough

When dysfunctional behavior appears in an employee, it is because they are not ready to tell you what is really wrong. Most times they have not identified the root cause of their behavior, and the severity of the resulting disruptive actions increase proportionately with the degree of disruptive behavior. Can you imagine the increasingly negative impact these factors have on your bottom line, productivity and employee morale? A keen sense of discernment along with a heightened ability to correctly decipher non-verbal communication indicators will greatly assist in pre-empting disruption to daily operations.

In addition to running my small business, I also work part-time with high-school students in an extremely diverse school district. In fact, the student body of the school I frequent has over 50 countries represented in a student population of 1600. That can make for interesting peer-to-peer, and peer-to-instructor communication interactions. Last week, I approached a student who had made up a nickname for me and began to spread it through her social circles. This made me reconsider how to communicate with her. Instead of responding to the nicknames, I decided to praise her for a dance that she and her classmates had performed during a recent performance for African-American history month. As I approached her, I could see trepidation and discomfort began to encroach on her care-free attitude. You can imagine her surprise when I smiled and said “Hi! It is good to see you.” This statement made simultaneously her curious and expectant – she wanted to know why I was so happy to see her. After a short conversation and recovering from the shock of receiving a compliment from me, the student’s entire demeanor changed. She showed gratitude for the compliment, and began to open up about challenges she was facing outside of school. All of a sudden, her behavior toward me as an authority figure made sense. Trying to manage her behavior toward me was not enough, it would only have produced the opposite result. A genuine, well-timed compliment worked towards building trust through an open and authentic interchange.

Employees who communicate dysfunction through non-verbal indicators have most likely experienced a breach of trust, or what Morrison and Robinson refer to as psychological contract violation. These are employee expectations of reciprocal obligations, either explicitly stated or perceived, that exist between themselves and their company. When the organization fails to meet leaders’ expectations, they perceive that a violation has occurred. In this case, their trust level has diminished and is in need of repair. Michael Hackman and Craig Johnson, authors of Leadership: A Communication Perspective, point out the fragile nature of trust indicating that “one untrustworthy act can quickly undermine attempts to build a trusting culture. You can imagine that from a follower’s perspective, organizational trust is always under the microscope. You will find action items listed below that will minimize organizational “trust busters” and strengthen trust within your organization.

Clearly communicate expectations

Trust busters addressed: Incompetence, low standards, unmet expectations and broken promises

According to the Pygmalion effect, people live up to the expectations that you communicate to them. Even when expectations cannot be met, it is important to discuss them to know what each party is expecting. This helps leaders and followers to avoid resentment regarding unmet expectations. Keeping your promises engenders trust and builds leverage. It is difficult to build trust and hold employees accountable for their end of the bargain, without following through on your end. Situations happen and sometimes you cannot deliver as promised. By coming back to the table, you will set a positive example of how to consistently communicate and monitor expectations.

Give employees a stake and a voice

Trust busters addressed: Hierarchy and unilateral control

Hierarchy and unilateral control automatically inspire distrust in followers due to negative associations. While changing organization structure is not always feasible, leaders can invite employees into the conversation by allowing them to participate on tiger teams that contribute to organizational assessment and performance. Encourage and integrate two-way communication by conducting focus groups, surveys and community meetings to gather feedback from employees. Also, give them a stake in what’s going on by involving them in the decision making. Utilize lower-level managers to engage employees in dialogue regarding the details of the vision and how it impacts them. Allowing employees to share their feedback without fear of recourse builds trust. Employee voice has demonstrated positive results in contributing to better, higher-level decision making. Giving employees a stake and a voice creates a shared vision that increases buy in because they have a sense of ownership.

Practice sense making and framing

Trustbusters addressed: Quickly shifting priorities and unclear vision

When Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks as CEO, he sponsored an offsite retreat to inspire free thinking about how Starbucks had lost their way and to embark on fresh thinking. Consulting firm SYPartners made sense of Starbucks’ journey of rediscovery by framing the session around the question: “What does it mean to reinvent an icon?” They began by considering how John, Paul, George and Ringo of the Beatles taught society about reinvention. Using the Beatles and other companies such as Apple, Gucci, Mini Cooper and even New York City, as a metaphor for reinventing an iconic brand, SYPartners swept Starbucks into the creative process. The questions posed during these sessions could not all be answered within that retreat, but provided focus and sparked creativity within Starbuck’s leadership team.

In his writing on General Semantics (GS), Martin Levinson discusses ways to frame change for followers, using verbal communication. The first, dating, helps people adapt to change by attaching dates to situations they are evaluating. Applying this to the previous Starbucks example, a leader would create the frame by asserting “Starbucks of 2005 is not Starbucks 2008”. Dating helps listeners to differentiate their associations made in the two time periods. Levinson refers to the second method as indexing. For example, leader 1 is a servant leader who demonstrates care for her followers. Leader 1 is different from leader 2, an authoritarian leader who concerns himself with task accomplishment at the expense of interpersonal relationships. Sense-making leaders use these frames to assess people and situations more effectively. Frames help organizations avoid stereotypes that decrease employee morale. Dating and indexing paint a picture that shows this is not that.

Practice knowledge and information sharing

Trust busters: Dishonesty and secrecy

Knowledge is power. Sharing knowledge is giving away power. However, AT&T found out the hard way that sharing information is not always a bad thing. A department at AT&T spent $79,449 in an effort to collect information already available to the public at the price of $13. They paid the equivalent of 2 administrative assistant annual salaries for information that they could have bought with petty cash. Processes such as open forums, team debriefings and knowledge fairs are effective ways to share knowledge across job functions and departments.

In sharing information, it is important to know your purpose for communicating. Is it to share information? Is your end goal to keep control? If so, it requires a more strategic approach to the communication. Also consider the most appropriate channel to use in disseminating information (e.g. email, face-to-face, phone, public address, etc.).

Encourage learning and discourage blaming

Trust buster addressed: Blaming

Most employees have a fear of making mistakes. More aptly, the anxiety associated with receiving consequences for mistakes made causes many employees to play the blame game. Employers also shun mistakes, viewing them as a waste of money and time. Mistakes can be costly, however, the larger cost is not learning from them. Employees will make mistakes especially when trying out new tasks or learning a new job function. Leaders that can make sense of mistakes and encourage employees to learn from them win big in the end. This communicates to employees that the only bad mistake is the one you do not learn from.

During organizational change, employees need encouragement to try new things. Followers, especially lower performers, require more encouragement than higher performers. Even a high performer engaging in a new task or taking on a new responsibility needs encouragement. They are learning. Leaders should coach them, encouraging them to critically assess what they learned and giving feedback to prevent repeating mistakes. When it comes to feedback, followers want it frequently, specifically and descriptively. And most of all, the desire feedback delivered in a way that positions them to take action.

Discern signs of employee distress

Some employees handle anger by using sarcasm. Others cope by eating extra dessert at night. And there are some that just explode. But occasionally an employee will grin and bear it until they cannot take it anymore. These are the employees leaders need to be cognizant of, especially in times of change. Pitney Bowes learned that violence that stirs under the surface can be more dangerous than a yelling supervisor or sarcastic receptionist. A guard at one Pitney Bowes facility quit his job one day, and returned a few days later to kill his replacement. In response, the company implemented programs to preempt such workplace violence. The company provides a hotline for employees to call if they notice angry or erratic behavior among colleagues. Pitney Bowes also trains managers on how to discern signals of employee stress that may or may not be work related. The ability to discern hot buttons and prevent disruptive and even violent behavior has become an important line item on each leader’s job description.

It’s clear to see that in the eyes of employees, leaders can breach trust regularly and unknowingly. Trust will become breached at some point in the employer-employee relationship. The level of dysfunctional behavior can indicate the correct timing to hold one-on-one conversations, team huddles or a company-wide address to preserve trust and avoid the damaging effect of displeasure communicated through dysfunctional behavior. It is important to communicate a build trust during organizational change. With so many moving parts, your organization last week will not be your organization this week. Employees need assurance from leaders on a regular basis to make sense of where they are in the big picture of your organizational vision.


Daft, R.L. 2011. The Leadership Experience, 5th ed. Mason, OH: Southwestern Cengage Learning.

Hackman, M.Z. & Johnson, C.E. 2013. Leadership: A Communication Perspective, 6th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Levinson, M.H. (2005). Using General Semantics to Enhance Organizational Leadership. ETC, July 2005, 250-260.

Morrison, E.W. and Robinson, S. L. (1997). When Employees Feel Betrayed: A Model of How Psychological Contract Violation Develops. Academy of Management Review, 22,1, 226-256.

Wilkinson, M. 2004. The Secrets of Facilitation: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Getting Results with Groups. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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