Training Bad Habits Out of Good Communicators 

Recently, a new employee confided that years of negative work environments had trained her out of speaking up. Office politics at former employers were too much of a minefield. Speaking out was rarely worth the risk. She’s not alone—many employees describe their workplace as toxic. A study, “Work Stress,” reports that more than two in five American workers are exposed to workplace psychological aggression.

The bad habits employees carry from past jobs can dilute or even corrupt a healthy company culture—worse still, they can become a communication crisis. To protect a positive culture, you need to onboard and train those joining your company from an unhealthy environment. As much as you hope communicators can hit the ground running, it will take time and intentional strategies to train bad habits out of them. Here are a few ways to do it:

Use Positive Reinforcement

Go out of your way to compliment the good work a communicator who is new to the company is doing. Consistency is key—don’t just give a compliment in passing once in a while. Pay attention to their work. Give specific examples of how they’re positively contributing to projects and/or your organization.

Have Face-to-Face Conversations

Another new team member’s previous employer never provided constructive criticism. Not once. As a result, the employee was overwhelmed every time she received email or Slack suggestions, edits or  feedback. Tone was the missing ingredient. The employee misinterpreted suggestions and edits as attacks. In this case, switch to sending feedback via a phone call. This way, the employee can hear in your voice that it is coaching, not condemnation.

Bring Them in

Cliques are common in toxic work environments. Work friendships are great, but cliques are dangerous if they alienate people or center around gossip and complaints. Encourage tenured communicators to reach out and arrange coffees, lunches, or virtual meet-and-greets with new teammates to help them feel less disconnected. Even while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, make a point of inviting new communicators to enjoy dinner and drinks outdoors.

Deliver Constructive Criticism in Private

Many communicators have horror stories about managers publicly berating them. If they’re coming from an environment where humiliation was the norm, it’s even more important to pull them aside and let them know you have a suggestion for them. Everyone benefits from feedback—they don’t need you to deliver it like a bully.

Ask for Their Suggestions

Provide opportunities for new communicators to share their perspectives, make recommendations, and help evolve your own culture, including joining affinity and working groups so they can contribute their thoughts and suggestions to your culture. Their fresh perspective makes them well situated to recognize issues that you may not notice creeping up on you.

Don’t Ignore Bad Behavior

Communicators may have unconsciously adopted bad habits in their previous positions. Don’t let them creep into your workplace; swiftly, directly address bad habits and inappropriate comments. Remind them of your organization’s values and principles, the culture you’re striving to create and their role and responsibility in creating that culture.

Aubrey Quinn is managing director at Clyde Group