How to Counter Negative Communication and the Impact it Has on Team Dynamics

An article grounded in academic research to ensure teams stay positive and productive.

Organizations rely on teams to improve productivity, work quality, employee engagement, organizational harmony and attitudes. However, these group environments aren’t always positive. Negative communication can occur if not well managed; leading to frustration, distraction and employee departure. Ultimately, negative communication hurts, distracts and disrupts teamwork. As an organizational leader, it is up to you to ensure your team dynamics are positive and productive.

Here are three things to help ensure your teams are staying positive and productive.

1). Identify it: What does negative communication look like?
Negative communication doesn’t feel good—to you or to others. It can be done unintentionally or intentionally—and can be an individual or collective behavior.

Typical behaviors include:

  • Interruptions: when an individual disrupts the turn of another by speaking and preventing the individual from completing their thoughts; having side conversations with other team members that are not related to the topic and become disruptive to the group.
  • Complaining: an expression of unpleasantness and is a natural reaction to dissatisfaction at work.
  • Self-promotion: when one excessively speaks of their own strengths, talents, accomplishments and superiority to make oneself more appealing and avoid topics where someone else can be the expert.
  • Empty talk: shifting the conversation to something unrelated or irrelevant to derail the conversation.
  • Withholding: a form of aggression where important details and information are not shared; withholding can also refer to holding back efforts, not accepting responsibility or simply doing nothing.
  • Blaming: placing failure, mistakes or errors on an individual, either in their presence or without their knowledge (backstabbing).

Know these traits and be on the lookout, because they could create problems for you, your team and your organization.

2). Know it’s a problem: I’ve noticed some of these behaviors—is it really a big deal? Yes! Even one individual can create a problem for group dynamics. And as you may have guessed, being around negative communication does encourage it.

In the short-term, negative communication can lead to complaining circles, decreased motivation and poor decision-making—creating unproductive and inefficient teams. Long-term, it can ultimately destroy relationships and the ability for the team to work cooperatively. There may be more conflict and less open communication, leading to lower job satisfaction and higher employee turnover.

3) Do something about it: Identify the negative contributors and address it. Be aware. Is it one person or a sub-group of team members? Is it occurring in new or established teams? Does it occur more than positive communication? Perhaps the individual doesn’t realize this is happening. Communicate with the individuals to identify the behaviors and offer coaching for how to adjust communication to be more positive. How to do this?

  • Have an individual and private conversation. Always assume the best. The team member may have the best intentions and truly doesn’t realize how his or her communication may be harming the team. Help the employee understand that some feedback or communication may be viewed negatively by others.
  • Give specific examples. To really make a difference, provide specific examples. Such as, “Emily, yesterday, we had a conversation as a team about how to drive sales growth. You may not have realized you were doing this, but you kept interrupting Sam and telling him why his ideas wouldn’t work. I really appreciate your perspective, and would like to work with you on how you could share those opinions in a way that might be better received by the team.” They might be tough conversations, but they are extremely important to have.
  • Make an action plan. Provide coaching to help the team member review and adjust negative communication patterns over time. This could be through a weekly meeting where you and the individual work through examples from the most recent team meeting. Continue to encourage the employee to conduct self-evaluation, while as a leader, you also provide ongoing feedback. Give access to resources, such as an external communications coach, to further support your employee.
  • Be patient and supportive. Adjusting communication style can be extremely difficult for many. Allow the time, space and support to work with your team member on this important development opportunity. As a leader, continue to provide open and honest feedback.
  • Celebrate successes: Your team members will hopefully be open to this feedback and will work hard to adjust communication styles. When this happens—celebrate it! Offer positive reinforcement and encourage their continued professional development in communication.
  • Know when to move on. As a leader, you also need to know when it’s time to move on. Perhaps, a team member is too harmful to your organizational culture and team productivity and is not willing to change. Sometimes, you will have to make the difficult decision of evaluating the team member’s employment with your organization. While not easy, continue to focus on the larger goal of your team dynamics and organizational productivity.

It’s important to note that positive communication does include critiques. Constructive criticism and discussions on improving should be a part of team dialogue. Offering positive feedback and the counter perspective are what teams need to improve. When it comes to constructive criticism and negative communication – there’s a difference—and you’ve likely seen this in teams you’ve been on or teams you have lead.

Be the leader who ensures teams create positive and successful outcomes—know, identify and do something about negative communication when it occurs. Communication is powerful—make sure it’s creating the intended results.

If you’re a leader who’d like to discuss communication within your leadership style, organization or team dynamics, contact O’Connor Connective today.  


OCC Strategic Communications Consultant Rachel Sonnentag conducted her master’s thesis on negative communication in organizational teams. For a full list of academic references related to the above conclusions, or to read the full thesis, including quantitative data, please email

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