The good, the bad, and the ugly of workplace communication

Communication in the workplace can make or break an employee’s experience. It can be the difference between making a high performer leave a business, the difference between a thriving culture and a toxic one, and it can be the difference between whether a person feels valued or devalued.

Whether it’s through verbal or written conversation, the way a person communicates in a business (especially managers and leaders) can have a significant impact on their job satisfaction and success. 

In this blog post, we will explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of workplace communication. We’ll look at examples of the good, the bad (and the ugly) — discussing styles, approaches, conversations and words or language that make up each. By the end of this post, you’ll be better prepared to navigate the nuances of workplace communication and handle any situation with confidence.

Brilliant Communication looks like…

Many great leaders have mastered the art of communicating with their employees effectively, even in difficult situations. 

This is an example of two-way trusting communication between Mary and Joe. The conversation commenced with setting the scene and providing a clear context to the discussion. It was clear what the concern was that Mary had and that she was interested in hearing Joe’s feedback and better understanding that before diving straight into solution or action mode. On hearing Joe’s response, Mary followed up by reinforcing her expectations of him but in a way that made him feel supported rather than exposed, and also included him in finding the way forward and solution to the problem.  The openness and timeliness of the conversation also helps to resolve the performance concerns quickly, but also does so in a way that is supportive and inclusive of the employee.

Other tips for increasing the effectiveness of communication in the workplace include using positive words and language, being clear and concise, offering feedback that is constructive and actionable, using body language that conveys respect and attentiveness, and providing meaningful encouragement and recognition. 

When done properly, these strategies can help foster better relationships between leaders and employees and create a more productive work environment and supportive culture.

Poor Communication

Take the example from above, but through the lens of poor communication. In this case, suppose Mary hadn’t communicated in the best of ways. In this case, instead of listening to the employee, she simply relayed the message that he needed to improve his performance or face disciplinary action – but instead of taking the time to explain the situation and provide guidance, she decided to simply criticise his performance without providing any constructive feedback. 

Unfortunately, this type of poor communication is all too common in the workplace. Whether it’s a manager or a team member, poor communication often includes passing along information without explanation, speaking in absolutes, failing to provide clarity, using vague language, or making assumptions about someone’s knowledge or capabilities. This type of communication can leave employees feeling overwhelmed, confused, and discouraged. 

Another example of poor communication in the workplace is when a manager fails to provide feedback. Employees may not know if they are performing up to expectations if their boss never provides any feedback or only offers criticism. This can lead to feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy, which can have a detrimental effect on morale and productivity. 

Finally, another example of poor communication in the workplace is when coworkers talk behind each other’s back instead of engaging in a direct conversation. Gossiping about someone or talking about them without their knowledge can create a hostile work environment and lead to distrust amongst colleagues. As a manager or business owner, it is important to set the tone and lead by example, by stamping this out or addressing it directly if it’s been seen happening. 

In sum, there are many examples of poor communication in the workplace that can have negative effects on employees and the work environment as a whole. When managers and coworkers fail to engage in effective communication, it can lead to feelings of confusion, frustration, and low morale. It is therefore essential that all parties involved are aware of how their words and actions affect those around them and take the time to ensure that their messages are clear and concise.

Do we even want to talk about the ugly?

Although poor communication is undesired and often leads to poor outcomes, there’s a difference between poor and toxic communication. The main difference is the level of intention, and infliction of psychological harm or lack of safety on another. Whilst one may be frustrating to an individual and creates ill outcomes to a business, it is a skill that can be improved upon and often comes with a willingness to change. The other — toxic or abusive communication — is a serious breach of conduct and in some cases, the law. 

Toxic communication can range from insulting or belittling behaviour to shouting or physically intimidating the other person. In many cases, this can be considered harassment or bullying in the workplace. An example of this could be an employee who is subjected to derogatory language by a supervisor or colleague. It could also include making offensive jokes or using racial slurs. In all of these cases, it is important to take immediate action to ensure that the situation does not escalate further.

Effective communication is essential to any successful workplace. It’s important to recognise the difference between good, poor, and toxic communication styles in order to foster a productive environment. 

Good communication Poor communication Toxic communication 
Respectful of boundaries and requests expressed by the other personDefensive, blaming of other person or refusing to accept another person’s worldviewBullying, harassing or pressuring someone to do something they don’t want to do
Open minded, acknowledges new ideas or creative expressionUnclear, aloof or failing to acknowledge contributionsManipulating others to think or act in a certain way with a self-fulfilling agenda
Constructive feedback with specific examples of how someone can improve without attacking a person personallyBlunt, overly direct criticism that doesn’t provide opportunities for growth or improvement. Using “you do / are” instead of “I feel”Name calling, shaming, personally attacking someone’s characteristics eg “You’re dumb”, or “You’re incompetent”
Clear language and explanation in a way that speaks to the level of understanding for the other person Overly simplifying in a way that is condescending or using jargon or overly complicated language that confuses people or cannot be understoodDeliberately using complicated explanations or unclear communication for personal gain or to further confuse a person
Active listening, open body language, eye contact, engaged and presentDistracted, no eye contact, on computer or phone, answering emails while talking, interruptingStonewalling, ignoring, deliberately talking over the top of someone, refusing to let someone speak
Using positive, encouraging and growth-based words and language that inspires actionUsing negative, blaming or fixed-based words that don’t foster growth, change or empowermentYelling, abusing, cursing, using offensive, racist, divisive or defamatory words / language
Asking open ended questions with gentle curiosity and non-judgementAsking ‘yes or no’ questions, trying to give advice or solve a problem instead of listen, judging someone as they shareOpenly sharing a judgement that is negative, shaming or makes the person feel attacked or victimised, especially about identity, gender or cultural background
Compassion, empathy and a deep competency of being able to “walk in the other person’s shoes” when communicatingPoor or inaccurate attempt of empathy, lacks understanding how something may impact someone differently, doesn’t attempt to see a differing perspectiveNo empathy, “do as I say” attitude, does not care about whether actions or words impact on others
Collaborative, inclusive, friendly and open, focused on team outcomesClosed off, works independently without consulting or communicating to get team input or feedback, appears unapproachableGossiping, divisive or excluding, closed off, “my way or the highway and there’ll be consequences” threats

Want to enhance your communication skills for your team, managers or business as a whole? Bespoke HR run one day, two day and five day workshops that cover effective communication styles, communicating with different personalities, having difficult conversations, and giving and receiving feedback. Contact Emma at to learn more.