The dark side of communication skills – why “killing the messenger” does not solve the problem

    Santiago G. Ponce

Many times we’ve heard that communication is one of the organization’s biggest problems. In complex social systems, such as organizations, how people interact with each other and with structures, processes, and routines is fundamental to the company’s success.

In every interaction, we’re transmitting a message, receiving it, or both. On top of these three components (sender, message, and receiver), which are subject to a lot of research, books, and articles, we need to add more extensive and complex layers that play a crucial role when it comes to creating meaningful social relationships.

One additional aspect which we like to focus on in this article is that there are two types of communication, formal and informal. In every organization, both are crucial and, the nature of the participants’ relationships and their social roles influence their formality. Formal communication tends to be used for coordinating relatively routine transactions within groups and organizations. (Kraut et al., p. 6) In other words, formal and informal communication are both sides of the same coin; however, they respond to different functions.

While formal communication tends to coordinate defined and expected activities, informal communication supports organizational and group coordination, especially under conditions of uncertainty (Kraut et al., p. 7). In figure 1, we can see the differences between these two kinds of interactions.

Figure 1: Formal vs. Informal communication (Kraut et al., p. 5)

However, we’ve experienced that sometimes the line between these two is not as clear as expected. To describe this situation, let’s take a look at the example below.

Thomas is in charge of managing an investment portfolio. His results are satisfactory and usually meet the expectations of the top management. As a person, Thomas is charismatic and dangerously ambitious. In the last five years in the company, he has developed a bright network inside as well as outside of the organization. Besides, Thomas is supervising two junior positions, and he’s pretty confident in getting a promotion very soon. The investment firm where he works is a small enterprise, with thirty employees, and he reports directly to the top management. However, the most salient characteristic of Thomas lies in his knowledge about what’s happening in the firm. In other words, if you want to know something, just ask Thomas! He’s aware of promotions, not yet communicated, interpersonal conflicts across the enterprise, as well as any rumor. It seems that he has “mastered” how to administrate this information, knowing when, how much, and to whom disclose it.  When it comes to information related to his area of responsibility, Thomas does everything at his reach to cover-up his mistakes, excluding unfavorable or critical information, in pursuit of his benefit.

I can imagine that many of you know a character like Thomas, or at least you’ve crossed paths at some point in life. Nevertheless, in our example, we can see how sometimes the flow of information is somehow monopolized by an individual (or a group of them) often at the expense of the interests of the organization. But what is more interesting is asking why this happens?

When there isn’t a clear distinction between formal and informal channels, and the messages are not aligned across these channels, everything starts to mix up. People inside the organization begin to wonder what is real and what is false; this leads to leverage the power (of people like Thomas) as a facilitator of information, which he “trades” to fuel his ambitions.

But the real driver behind this is the lack of trust in the organization’s leadership, that people try to balance by boosting Thomas’s influence who uses his communication skills to create a more appealing reality for his audience. According to studies, low trust is associated with people’s disclosed tendency to block or withhold information (gatekeeping) and their acknowledgment that there exist forces leading to the distortion of upward information flow (Roberts and O’Reilly 1974).

In environments of distrust, it’s easy to follow “false leaders” like Thomas. Frequently, this happens when the top management is not present, or maybe because they are confident enough of the company’s result that they turn the blind eye on this kind of behavior. Or even worst, they share the same sort of values gambling with formal and informal communications, despite the negative consequences they’re creating.

Despite the different possibilities, they all point to leadership’s mindset as the root cause.  Thomas could behave in the way he does either because he learned it from his superiors or just because he took advantage of the situation. Sooner or later, people will start to think that “to be successful in this enterprise, one needs to behave like Thomas.” After all, cultivating values and behavior is an essential role of the leadership team, and if it is not actively pursued, somebody else will fill that gap. Intentionally or not, he will start to be seen as a role model. Of course, a pretty negative one.

Studies support the importance of authentic leadership when developing the notion of openness, participation, understanding and trust, and empowerment, leading to a healthy communication system (Men and Jiang 2016; Men and Stacks 2014). Empirical evidence suggests that employees supervised by authentic leaders who are ethical, balanced, fair, and transparent are more likely to perceive that their organizations have an internal communication system that emphasizes openness, reciprocity, communication symmetry, feedback, and tolerance of disagreement (Men and Jiang 2016; Grunig 1992)

Organizational leadership behaviors have a direct influence on actions in the work environment that enable change (Gilley et al. 2009, p. 75; Gilley 2005; Drucker 2007; Howkins 2001). In healthy communication systems, people deal harmoniously with both formal and informal channels, and situations like the described above are the exception.

In our story above, it would be easy to blame Thomas for his behavior, but in reality, it is most likely just a symptom of the environment created or accepted by the top management. All in all, leaders need to ensure the proper flow of information by acting as role models. They need to use all the tools available to build-up formal communications efficiently and transparently. Also, leaders should cultivate the informal channels and explore them, avoiding any misuse and misalignment of information. After all, communication is more than a coordination tool.  Finally, if it’s anchored in an open and conscious mindset and translated into action accordingly, it will contribute to motivating people, impacting employee relationship outcomes (Men and Jiang 2016), and eventually driving organizational change.

Publication Bibliography

Drucker, Peter Ferdinand (2007): Management challenges for the 21st century: Routledge.

Gilley, Ann; Gilley, Jerry W.; McMillan, Heather S. (2009): Organizational change: Motivation, communication, and leadership effectiveness. In Performance improvement quarterly 21 (4), pp. 75–94.

Gilley, Ann Maycunich (2005): The manager as change leader: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Grunig, James E. (1992): Communication, public relations, and effective organizations: An overview of the book. In Excellence in public relations and communication management, pp. 1–28.

Howkins, John (2001): The Creative Economy. New York: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press.

Kraut, Robert E.; Fish, Robert S.; Root, Robert W.; Chalfonte, Barbara L.: Informal Communication in Organizations: Form, Function, and Technology.

Men, Linjuan Rita; Jiang, Hua (2016): Cultivating quality employee-organization relationships: The interplay among organizational leadership, culture, and communication. In International Journal of Strategic Communication 10 (5), pp. 462–479.

Men, Linjuan Rita; Stacks, Don (2014): The effects of authentic leadership on strategic internal communication and employee-organization relationships. In Journal of Public Relations Research 26 (4), pp. 301–324.

Roberts, K. H.; O’Reilly, C. A. (1974): Failures in Upward Communication in Organizations: Three Possible Culprits. In Academy of Management journal 17 (2), pp. 205–215. DOI: 10.2307/254974.