Roundtable: Workplace Communication Abuse

*This article was originally published on and features Shaara Roman’s Expert Commentary*

Teams or organizations can be wildly successful and still have significant mistreatment of each other occurring. Not only occurring, but tolerated and thus enabled.

When this happens, those negatively impacted have hard decisions to make. Most of them find ways to cope and endure, when that should not be the best or only perceived response.

This Communication Intelligence three-expert, three-question roundtable discusses the problem.

The roundtable guests and participants in this conversation include:

Bridgette Di Ferdinando, Head of Government Practice Area at NeuroLeadership Institute, a consultancy advising 64% of the Fortune 100 on workplace culture, leadership strategies, management skills and DE&I.

Shaara Roman, CEO of The Silverene Group — a culture consulting firm that aligns people, strategy and culture to optimize organizational performance. Roman written the new book “The Conscious Workplace: Fortify Your Culture to Thrive in Any Crisis.”

Bonnie Timms Hagemann — CEO of Executive Development Associates (EDA), Inc. an established human capital brand — and an extensively published writer in magazines and of books.

She is the author of “The Courage to Advance (primarily about women in leadership), and “Leading With Vision.”

Yesterday, I wrote about the story that inspired this feature, in the article Succeeding Despite Abusive Communication. Today, we go deeper and wider.

In brief, the conversation is centered around the story of the Chicago Bulls professional basketball franchise winning six championships with a coach that would become legendary, arguably the best player of all time — Michael Jordan — and another historically-respected and appreciated player, Scottie Pippen.

Jordan was a notorious taskmaster to his teammates and his competitive and demanding nature are well documented and widely known. Pippen has said that the Bulls, contrary to a common narrative, were not entirely a product of Jordan’s playing wizardry, excellence and leadership.

“Michael was wrong,” Pippen said. “We didn’t win six championships because he got on guys. We won in spite of his getting on guys.”

Reiterating what he said, “In spite of…”

Pippen echoed common business philosophy, “We won because we played team basketball, which hadn’t been the case my first two seasons, when Doug Collins was our coach. That’s what was special about playing for the Bulls: the camaraderie we established with one another, not that we felt blessed to be on the same team with the immortal Michael Jordan.

Let’s discuss this type of situation within the workplace.

Oftentimes, certain professionals believe the way to team success is through exhibiting a dominant personality to lead and drive the people around you.

Truth is, history shows it works, at times. Yet it isn’t normally appreciated.

This begs the question, what is the cost-benefit component of mistreatment of colleagues or subordinates (real or perceived)?

Bridgette Di Ferdinando: Perhaps the loudest person in the room is heard, but is everyone listening?

The reality is that it does nothing to improve inclusive teams, which we know, are smarter, more actively engaged and higher performing because all voices are heard and respected.

In fact, if we’re not actively including everyone in the team, we’re accidentally excluding them, which is detrimental to sustained team success.

We’ve learned, especially in the last three years, that how a person is treated in a team or in the workplace has a long term effect, not only in the wellbeing of the employee, but of those around them, and ultimately that of the organization.

Conventional wisdom says that we humans ‘can just get the job done’ without positive social connection and belonging but the reality is that we are more productive when we have an optimal dosage of positive social connections and inclusion at work.

Workplace fatigue, burnout and a labor and skills shortage climate where retention is critical has also seen that the consequences of mistreatment and aggression are now less likely to be ignored, as they show up in low employee engagement, burnout, safety incidences, and higher rates of resignation.

Shaara Roman: In my opinion, it’s all ‘cost’ if you allow star personalities to drive the team around them in an aggressive manner.

There’s really no excuse for mistreating people – and even if a team ekes out a win or (wins) a championship, that does not and should not excuse a**hole behavior. 

Bonnie Timms Hagemann: It’s true that difficult leaders can drive results but there has to be something that causes others to follow.

Sometimes it’s respect for skills or excitement of a big vision or pay so good that its worth the hardship.

It reminds me of Dr. Thomas, my freshman year English professor. This man was so old, he had taught my mom, and he was hard on me. He was the toughest professor I’ve ever had and I didn’t like him but looking back, he made me better than ever would have been.

And then there was the founder of my company Jim Bolt. When my company acquired EDA, Jim agreed to mentor me which he did for a year and a half. If he had been a professor, he would have topped Dr. Thomas in the tough professor category. No matter how hard I tried, he expected more.

At the time, I was a mother of young children, working long hours and there was one night in NYC when he had arranged a dinner which I was paying for with a VIP. I left during desert to call my children from a crowded, noisy hall near the restroom in the popular restaurant.

I talked to my kids for less than 10 minutes and went back to the table to finish our expensive dinner and in the cab on the way to the hotel, Jim let me know what he thought about my absence from the table for 10 minutes.

I was so tired and homesick for my kids that I tears just started rolling down my face. I didn’t say anything but I couldn’t hold back my utter exhaustion and feeling of being incapable of making him happy.

The next morning when we met for meetings, he looked tired and I asked if he was okay and he said that he had been up most of the night worried about me and feeling bad about the night before.

That’s when I realized he cared about me.

I had wanted him to be happy and feel that I was the best person to take the company into the future and after I realized that he wasn’t just hard on me but that he cared, I wanted that even more.

So, what I really believe is that it can work. It works best when its more tough love than just tough and when the goal is to push toward better performance and everyone should have a tough professor at least once in their life, but being hard on people isn’t necessary.

A leader can expect a lot, challenge the people he or she leads to be great and still be inspiring and kind.

Watch the “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch and you will see how he inspires his students to do more in non-abrasive way. That’s not always easy for a high-performing leader because it often means they have to take a few breaths before addressing less than stellar performance, but it’s possible to be both.

What risks are not being calculated in situations where dominant personalities are not controlling their strongest impulses or being reigned in by others or the collective (colleagues)?

Di Ferdinando: The risk and cost of aggression has a multiplier effect. When we experience it, it heightens our internal sense of threat. That impairs our cognitive capacity needed to think, regulate our emotions and make good decisions.

It makes doing a good job hard, including the smallest task of responding to a question in a meeting, and impacts our feelings of psychological safety and sense of belonging in the team.

Over a short time our trust in our leaders and colleagues plummets.

It creates a perfect climate for higher safety incidents, unnecessary escalated workplace conflict, and resignation.

What’s worse, if we witness aggression, it has the same painful impact on us as the person receiving it. So it starts to make sense when we see spates of resignations from certain pockets of an organization.

Roman: Whether you’re an athlete or an office worker, there are two elements that you should be gauged on — what you do and equally important, how you do it. One can’t significantly outweigh the other.

When being interviewed or recruited for the role, leaders and coaches need to explore both the what and the how. (Is the person) going to add positively to the culture or are they going to overshadow and overwhelm the other contributions?

In my experience, and backed up through studies, when people are mistreated they have a dip in morale, have increased interpersonal conflicts and communication breakdowns.

When people don’t feel psychologically safe — to be themselves, to make mistakes, learn, challenge, grow, etc., they shut down and you don’t get their full contribution.

You often also have turnover— most often, the skill players that are needed to help the team win. I have seen where the team bands together, supports one another,  and keeps the personality in check when the boss doesn’t do it.

Timms Hagemann: One risk is the overpowering personality causes other great performers to be in the background. Others (then) don’t see them shine in the way they would if there weren’t such a strong personality.

Another is losing other great performers because they are not seen or are negatively impacted by the leaders behavior.

High performers are not always worth it. Sometimes, having an extremely high performer who is difficult costs more than its worth in terms of impact on others and the overall culture.

They are like thoroughbreds that need to run but they still need others to help them stay on the track so they can win and not get derailed.

What does the enablement of over-the-top critical and demeaning behavior communicate and what can be done to still passionately pursue improvement, consistency and success, achieve it and yet respect the people with which we collaborate?

Di Ferdinando: There is no benefit to mistreatment.

Quality, positive connections — with a leader or team — matter because it’s a biological requirement for sustained human performance and wellbeing.

If we enable dysfunctional workplace behavior by reinforcing or failing to act, especially as leaders, we are sending a signal to our teams that it’s ok to act this way and, because we have a underlying need to look to social norms and habits to guide our own behavior, this becomes contagious.

It also depletes trust in the leader’s ability to sustain an environment where speaking up is encouraged, for when the next dysfunctional behavior or moment occurs, ‘because I’ve been here before. Nothing will be done about it if I say something.’

We can be productive and respectful of others in the same workplace! When an organization has ‘regenerative’ leadership and team principles, that is where people around you are left better off by your interaction with them.

We can do this by creating a climate that feels psychologically safe and which has lasting positive impacts on people.

And the word ‘climate’ is important as many organizations seek to create a psychologically-safe culture, but research shows a climate is actually what’s necessary. That’s because interventions focused on changing individual behaviors without changing the environment won’t achieve desired results.

A climate intervention targets a shared set of behaviors, aimed at common and aligned goals, that a group creates together, to create lasting change.

When leaders then role model those set of behaviors — what good looks like — and reign in behaviors that don’t align, they create a contagious social norm and the competence that is needed, with some warmth thrown in, to build trust.

Only then are we more likely to have organizational loyalty, collaboration, better performance and higher retention. And we’re more likely as individuals to feel like we belong and matter, something that we’re just wired to strive for.

Roman: When we rationalize bad behavior we are essentially saying it is ok to be a jerk as long as you are a superstar. In team sports — and teams at work — the work is never done by just one person. So, we are essentially saying there is unequal treatment and it’s ok, provided the prize is worth it.

That may work in the short term, but it does not work in the long term.

Bad behavior impacts people’s morale, sense of worth, commitment to the team and organization, impacts creativity and productivity. 

What works is having a shared goal and vision that is clearly articulated.  And, everyone on the team needs to clearly understand their role and how they impact the outcomes.

Yes, there might be someone who is particularly gifted, and the team is there to help create an environment where they can shine, as well as expect the gifted person to turn around and help others shine too. 

The coach or leader needs to create an environment where everyone is valued equally for what they bring to the team.

The whole point of a team is to have different people with different skills work together to achieve a positive outcome. If you only need one star player, then why do you have everyone else on the team?

Timms Hagemann: If it’s abusive behavior, the enablement is a lack of leadership or governance. If its more along the lines of tough professor, sometimes a well-placed story can help the high-performer to see things in a new way.

On the “what can be done” question, there is much that can be done.

First, the high performer needs feedback. He or she needs to understand the impact of his-or-her communication and leadership style.

There are tools such as 360-degree surveys and processes such as executive coaching to help as well as mentors.

If after all of this, the high-performer chooses to stick to the harsh leadership stye, leadership may not be the best place. Instead, a well-placed individual contributor role may be better.

Interested in knowing how our team can bring your vision to life?