11.1: Teamwork

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Define teamwork in professional settings.

2. Compare and contrast positive and negative team roles and behaviours in the workplace.

3. Discuss group strategies for solving problems.

4. Demonstrate best practices in delivering constructive criticism and bad news in person.

5. Plan and deliver short, organized spoken messages and oral reports tailored to specific audiences and purposes.

i. Use effective and engaging language and non-verbal behaviours
ii. Use verbal and nonverbal techniques to enhance spoken messages

Almost every posting for a job opening in a workplace location lists teamwork among the required skills. Why? Is it because every employer writing a job posting copies other job postings? No, it’s because every employer’s business success absolutely depends on people working well in teams to get the job done. A high-functioning, cohesive, and efficient team is essential to workplace productivity anywhere you have three or more people working together. Effective teamwork means working together toward a common goal guided by a common vision, and it’s a mighty force when firing on all cylinders. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” (Sommers & Dineen, 1984, p. 158).

Compared with several people working independently, teams maximize productivity through collaborative problem solving. When each member brings a unique combination of skills, talents, experience, and education, their combined efforts make the team synergistic—i..e, more than the sum of its parts. Collaboration can motivate and result in creative solutions not possible in single-contractor projects. The range of views and diversity can energize the process, helping address creative blocks and stalemates. While the “work” part of “teamwork” may be engaging or even fun, it also requires effort and commitment to a production schedule that depends on the successful completion of individual and group responsibilities for the whole project to finish in a timely manner. Like a chain, the team is only as strong as its weakest member.

Teamwork is not without its challenges. The work itself may prove to be difficult as members juggle competing assignments and personal commitments. The work may also be compromised if team members are expected to conform and pressured to follow a plan, perform a procedure, or use a product that they themselves have not developed or don’t support. Groupthink, or the tendency to accept the group’s ideas and actions in spite of individual concerns, can also compromise the process and reduce efficiency. Personalities, competition, and internal conflict can factor into a team’s failure to produce, which is why care must be taken in how teams are assembled and managed.

John Thill and Courtland Bovee advocate for the following considerations when setting up a team:

  • Select team members wisely
  • Select a responsible leader
  • Promote cooperation
  • Clarify goals
  • Elicit commitment
  • Clarify responsibilities
  • Instill prompt action
  • Apply technology
  • Ensure technological compatibility
  • Provide prompt feedback

Group dynamics involve the interactions and processes of a team and influence the degree to which members feel a part of the goal and mission. A team with a strong identity can prove to be a powerful force. One that exerts too much control over individual members, however, runs the risk or reducing creative interactions, resulting in tunnel vision. A team that exerts too little control, neglecting all concern for process and areas of specific responsibility, may go nowhere. Striking a balance between motivation and encouragement is key to maximizing group productivity.

A skilled business communicator creates a positive team by first selecting members based on their areas of skill and expertise. Attention to each member’s style of communication also ensures the team’s smooth operation. If their talents are essential, introverts who prefer working alone may need additional encouragement to participate. Extroverts may need encouragement to listen to others and not dominate the conversation. Both are necessary, however, so the selecting for a diverse group of team members deserves serious consideration.

Teamwork Topics

  • 11.1.1: Positive and Negative Team Member Roles
  • 11.1.2: Team Problem-solving
  • 11.1.3: Leading Teams
  • 11.1.4: Constructive Criticism
  • 11.1.5: Communicating Bad News in Person

11.1.1: Positive and Negative Team Member Roles

When a manager selects a team for a particular project, its success depends on its members filling various positive roles. There are a few standard roles that must be represented to achieve the team’s goals, but diversity is also key. Without an initiator-coordinator stepping up into a leadership position, for instance, the team will be a non-starter because team members such as the elaborator will just wait for more direction from the manager, who is busy with other things (see §10.3.3 below for more on leadership). If all the team members commit to filling a leadership role, however, the group will stall from the get-go with power struggles until the most dominant personality vanquishes the others, who will be bitterly unproductive relegated to a subordinate worker-bee role. A good manager must therefore be a good psychologist in building a team with diverse personality types and talents. Table 10.4.1a below captures some of these roles.

Table 11.1.1a: Positive Group Roles

Role Actions
Initiator-coordinator Suggests new ideas or new ways of looking at the problem
Elaborator Builds on ideas and provides examples
Coordinator Brings ideas, information, and suggestions together
Evaluator-critic Evaluates ideas and provides constructive criticism
Recorder Records ideas, examples, suggestions, and critiques
Comic relief Uses humour to keep the team happy

Of course, each team member here contributes work irrespective of their typical roles. The groupmate who always wanted to be recorder in high school because they thought that all they had to do what jot down some notes about what other people said and did, and otherwise contributed nothing, would be a liability as a slacker in a workplace team. We must therefore contrast the above roles with negative roles, some of which are captured in Table 10.3.1b below.

Table 11.1.1b: Negative Group Roles

Role Actions
Dominator Dominates discussion so others can’t take their turn
Recognition seeker Seeks attention by relating discussion to their actions
Special-interest  pleader Relates discussion to special interests or personal agenda
Blocker Blocks attempts at consensus consistently
Slacker Does little-to-no work, forcing others to pick up the slack
Joker or clown Seeks attention through humour and distracting members

(Beene & Sheats, 1948; McLean, 2005)

Whether a team member has a positive or negative effect often depends on context. Just as the class clown can provide some much-needed comic relief when the timing’s right, they can also impede productivity when they merely distract members during work periods. An initiator-coordinator gets things started and provides direction, but a dominator will put down others’ ideas, belittle their contributions, and ultimately force people to contribute little and withdraw partially or altogether.(Business Communication for Success, 2015, 19.2).

Perhaps the worst of all roles is the slacker. If you consider a game of tug-o-war between two teams of even strength, success depends on everyone on the team pulling as hard as they would if they were in a one-on-one match. The tendency of many, however, is to slack off a little, thinking that their contribution won’t be noticed and that everyone else on the team will make up for their lack of effort. The team’s work output will be much less than the sum of its parts, however, if everyone else thinks this, too. Preventing slacker tendencies requires clearly articulating in writing the expectations for everyone’s individual contributions. With such a contract to measure individual performance, each member can be held accountable for their work and take pride in their contribution to solving all the problems that the team overcame on its road to success.

11.1.2: Team Problem-solving

No matter who you are or where you live, problems are an inevitable part of life. This is true for groups as much as for individuals. Some especially work teams are formed specifically to solve problems. Other groups encounter problems for a wide variety of reasons. A problem might be important to the success of the operation, such as increasing sales or minimizing burnout, or it could be dysfunctional group dynamics such as some team members contributing more effort than others yet achieving worse results. Whatever the problem, having the resources of a group can be an advantage as different people can contribute different ideas for how to reach a satisfactory solution.

Once a group encounters a problem, questions that come up range from “Where do we start?” to “How do we solve it?” While there are many approaches to a problem, the American educational philosopher John Dewey’s reflective thinking sequence has stood the test of time. This seven-step process (Adler, 1996) produces positive results and serves as a handy organizational structure. If you are a  member of a group that needs to solve a problem and don’t know where to start, consider these seven simple steps in a format adapted from Scott McLean (2005):

  1. Define the problem
  2. Analyze the problem
  3. Establish criteria for a successful resolution to the problem
  4. Consider possible solutions
  5. Decide on a solution or a select combination of solutions
  6. Implement the solution(s)
  7. Follow up on the solution(s)

Let’s discuss each step in detail. Define the Problem

If you don’t know what the problem is, how do you know you can solve it? Defining the problem allows the group to set boundaries of what the problem is and what it isn’t, as well as to begin formalizing a description of the scope, size, or extent of the challenge the group will address. A problem that is too broadly defined can overwhelm the group and make getting started even more challenging. If the problem is too narrowly defined, however, important considerations that, if addressed, might help successfully resolve the problem will fall outside of the scope, guaranteeing failure.

Let’s say there’s a web-based company called Fan Favourites that needs to increase its customer base and ultimately sales. The manager assembles key players into a problem-solving group that starts by formulating a working definition of the problem. If it’s “Sales are off, our numbers are down, and we need more customers,” it would be too broad to map out a feasible roadmap to resolution. A more precise definition such as the following, however, would provide more specific direction:

Sales have been slipping incrementally for six of the past nine months and are significantly lower than a seasonally adjusted comparison to last year. Overall, this loss represents a 4.5 percent reduction in sales from the same time last year. However, when we break it down by product category, sales of our non-edible products have seen a modest but steady increase, while sales of edibles account for the drop-off and we need to halt the decline.

With hard facts and figures, as well as a breakdown that pinpoints specific strengths and weaknesses, the team can begin providing a more thorough analysis that would itself suggest solutions. Analyze the Problem

Now the group analyzes the problem by figuring out its root causes so that the solution can address those rather than mere effects. Why do non-edible products continue selling well? What is it about the edibles that is turning customers off? The problem is complex and requires more than one area of expertise, so let’s meet our problem solvers at Fan Favourites.

Kevin is responsible for customer resource management. He is involved with the customer from the point of initial contact through purchase and delivery. Most of the interface is automated in the form of an online shopping-cart model, where photographs and product descriptions are accompanied by “Add to Cart” buttons. He is available during normal business hours for live chat and voice chat if needed, and customers are invited to request additional information. Most Fan Favourites customers don’t access this service, but Kevin is nonetheless quite busy handling returns and complaints. Because he believes that superior service retains customers while attracting new ones, he is always interested in better ways to serve the customer. Looking at edibles and non-edibles, he’ll study the cycle of customer service and see if there are any common points—from the main webpage, through the catalog, to the checkout process, and on to returns where customers abandon the sale. He has existing customer feedback loops with end-of-sale surveys, but most customers decline to take the survey and there is currently no incentive to participate.

Mariah is responsible for products and purchasing. She wants to offer the best products at the lowest price and to offer new, unusual, rare, or exotic products. She regularly adds these products to the Fan Favourites catalog and culls underperformers. Right now she has the data on every product and its sales history, but representing that history is a challenge. She analyzes current sales data and produces a report that specifically identifies how each product—edible and non-edible—has and is performing. She wants to highlight “winners” and “losers” but also recognizes that today’s duds may be tomorrow’s hotcakes. It’s hard to predict constantly changing tastes and preferences, but that’s part of her job. It’s both an art and a science. She must have an eye for what will catch on tomorrow while continuing to provide what is hot today.

Suri is responsible for data management at Fan Favourites. She gathers, analyzes, and presents information gathered from the supply chain, sales, and marketing. She works with vendors to ensure product availability, makes sales predictions based on sales history, and assesses marketing campaign effectiveness. The problem-solving group members already have certain information on hand: they know that customer retention is one contributing factor. Attracting new customers is a constant goal, but they are aware of the well-known principle that it takes more effort to attract new customers than to keep existing ones. It’s therefore important to ensure quality customer service for existing customers and encourage them to refer friends. The group needs to determine how to promote this favourable customer behaviour.

Another contributing factor seems to be that customers often abandon the shopping cart before completing a purchase, especially when purchasing edibles. The group members need to learn more about what’s behind this. It’s time to get methodical. Establish Criteria

Establishing the criteria for a solution is the next step. At this point, information is coming in from diverse perspectives, and each group member has contributed information from their perspective, even though they may overlap at certain points.

Kevin: Customers who complete the post-sale survey indicate that they want to know (1) what is the estimated time of delivery, (2) why a specific item was not in stock and when it will be available, and (3) why their order sometimes arrives incomplete with some items back-ordered but with no notification at the point of sale.

He knows that a very small percentage of customers complete the post-sale survey and the results are far from scientific. He also notes that it appears the interface is not capable of cross-checking inventory to provide immediate information concerning back orders, so the customer “Adds to Cart” only to learn several days later that it was not in stock. This is worse for edible products because people tend to order them for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. We don’t really know this for sure, however, due to the low post-sale survey participation.

Mariah: Four edible products frequently sell out. So far, we haven’t been able to boost the appeal of other edibles so that people would order them as alternatives when sales leaders are unavailable. We also have several rare, exotic products that are slow movers. They have potential, but are currently underperformers.

Suri: We know from a postal code analysis that most customers are from a few specific geographic areas associated with above-average incomes. We have very few credit cards declined, and the average sale is over $100. Shipping costs average 8% of the total sales cost. We don’t have sufficient information to produce a customer profile. There’s no specific point in the purchase process where cart abandonment tends to happen; it happens fairly uniformly at all steps. Consider Possible Solutions to the Problem

The group listens to each other and now brainstorms ways to address the challenges they have analyzed while focusing resources on those solutions that are more likely to produce results.

Kevin: Is it possible for our IT programmers to create a cross-index feature linking the product desired with a report of how many are in stock? I’d like the customer to know right away whether it is in stock or how long they may have to wait. Another idea is to add incentives to the purchase cycle that won’t negatively impact overall profit. I’m thinking a small-volume discount on multiple items, or perhaps free shipping over a specific dollar amount like many online retailers such as Amazon.ca or Well.ca do.

Mariah: I recommend holding a focus group where customers can sample our edible products and tell us what they like best and why. When the best sellers are sold out, could we offer a discount on related products to provide an instant alternative? We might also cull the underperforming products with a liquidation sale to generate interest.

Suri: If we want to know more about our customers, we need to give them an incentive to complete the post-sale survey. How about a 5%-off coupon code for the next purchase to get them to return and to help us better identify our customer base? We may also want to build in a customer referral rewards program, but it all takes better data in to get results out. We should also explore the supply side of the business by getting a more reliable supply of the leading products and trying to get discounts that are more advantageous from our suppliers, especially in the edible category. Decide on a Solution

Kevin, Mariah, and Suri may want to implement all the solution strategies, but they do not have the resources to do them all. They’ll complete a cost-benefit analysis, which ranks each solution according to its probable impact, as shown in Table below.

Table Sample Cost-benefit Analysis

Source Proposed Solution Cost Benefit Comment
Kevin Integrate cross-index feature High High Many competitors already do this
Kevin Volume discount Low Medium May increase sales slightly
Kevin Free shipping Low Low Downside: makes customers aware of shipping costs if order doesn’t qualify for free shipping
Mariah Hold a focus group to taste edible products High Medium Hard to select participants representative of customer base
Mariah Search for alternatives to high-performing products Medium Medium Can’t be certain which products customers will like best
Mariah Liquidate underperformers Low Low Might make a “bargain basement” impression inconsistent with brand
Suri Incentive for post-sale survey completion Low Medium Ensure the incentive process is user-friendly
Suri Incentive for customer referrals Low Medium Customers may feel uncomfortable being put in a marketing role
Suri Find a more reliable supply of top-selling edibles Medium High Already know customers want these products
Suri Negotiate better discounts from vendors Low High A win-win if it doesn’t alienate best vendors

Now that the options have been presented with their costs and benefits, deciding which courses of action are likely to yield the best outcomes is much easier. The analysis helps the team see beyond the immediate cost of implementing a given solution. For example, Kevin’s suggestion of offering free shipping won’t cost Fan Favourites much money, but it also may not pay off in customer goodwill. Even though Mariah’s suggestion of having a focus group might sound like a good idea, it’ll be expensive and its benefits questionable.

The analysis indicates that Kevin’s best suggestion is to integrate the cross-index feature in the ordering process so that customers can know immediately whether an item is in stock or on back order. Meanwhile, Mariah suggests that searching for alternative products is probably the most likely to benefit Fan Favourites, while Suri’s two supply-side suggestions are likely to result in positive outcomes. Implement the Solution

Kevin is faced with the challenge of designing the computer interface without incurring unacceptable costs. He strongly believes that the interface will pay for itself within the first year—or, to put it more bluntly, that Fan Favourites’ declining sales will get worse if the website doesn’t have this feature soon. He asks to meet with top management to get budget approval and secures their agreement on one condition: he must negotiate a compensation schedule with the IT consultants that includes delayed compensation in the form of bonuses after the feature has been up and running successfully for six months.

Mariah knows that searching for alternative products is a never-ending process, but it takes time and the company needs results. She decides to invest time evaluating products that competing companies currently offer, especially in the edible category. She theorizes that customers who find their desired items sold out on the Fan Favourites website may have been buying alternative products elsewhere instead of choosing an alternative from Fan Favourites’ product lines.

Suri decides to approach the vendors of the four most frequently sold-out products and ask point blank, “What would it take to get you to produce these items more reliably in greater quantities?” By opening the channel of communication with these vendors, she motivates them to make modifications that will improve the reliability and quantity. She also approaches the vendors of the less popular products with a request for better discounts in return for their cooperation in developing and test-marketing new products. Follow Up on the Solution

Kevin: After several beta tests, the cross-index feature was implemented and has been in place for thirty days. Now customers see either “in stock” or “available [mo/da/yr]” in the shopping cart. As expected, Kevin sees a decrease in the number of chat and phone inquiries of the “Will this item arrive before my wife’s birthday?” type. However, he also sees an increase in inquiries asking, “Why isn’t this item in stock?” It is difficult to tell whether customer satisfaction is higher overall.

Mariah: In exploring the merchandise available from competing retailers, she got several ideas for modifying Fan Favourites’ product line to offer more flavours and other variations on popular edibles. Working with vendors, she found that these modifications cost very little. Within the first thirty days of adding these items to the product line, sales are up. Mariah believes these additions also serve to enhance the Fan Favourites brand identity, but she has no data to back this up.

Suri: So far, the vendors supplying the four top-selling edibles have fulfilled their promise of increasing quantity and reliability. Three of the four items have still sold out, however, raising the question of whether Fan Favourites needs to bring in one or more additional vendors to produce these items. Of the vendors Fan Favourites asked to negotiate better discounts, some refused and two were “stolen” by a competing retailer so that they no longer deal with Fan Favourites. In addition, one of the vendors that agreed to give a better discount was unexpectedly forced to cease operations for several weeks because of a fire.

This scenario allows us to see that the problem may have several dimensions as well as solutions, but resources can be limited and not every solution is successful. Even though the problem is not completely resolved immediately, the team made some measurable progress towards their goal. Even learning what doesn’t work gives them valuable intel when they go back to the drawing board to refine past attempts and hatch all new solution possibilities. Altogether, the methodical approach serves as a useful guide through the problem-solving process that will eventually lead to success (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 19.3).

11.1.3: Leading Teams

As we saw in our discussion of team roles (see §10.3.1 above), teams depend on excellent leadership to guide it in the right direction and keep them on track. Without leadership, team members may act as if it’s an everyone-for-themselves game. It would be as if, instead of pulling in a straight line during a tug-o-war, everyone on your team pulled the rope in whatever direction suited them best, including opposite the direction you should be pulling. Good leadership gets everyone pulling in the same direction.

The further you go in your profession and the more you move up in terms of responsibility and pay scale, the more likely it is you’ll occupy a leadership role. This may be far from now or perhaps you have the drive, personality, and people-managing skills for such a role already. Either way, you must consider the leadership role you’ll occupy as one whose success depends largely on communication skills. Paths to Leadership

Whether or not there is a natural born leader who comes equipped with a combination of talents and traits that enable them to direct others has been the subject of debate since time immemorial. Today research in psychology tells us that someone with presence of mind, innate intelligence, and an engaging personality doesn’t necessarily destine them for a leadership role. The skill set that makes for an effective leader can be learned just like any other. On the other hand, some who think that they’re meant to be leaders lack the leadership skill set and manage only to do a great deal of damage whenever they’re trusted in such roles. History is full of examples of men who assumed leadership of vast empires merely by accident of birth and, through misgovernment, were responsible for the deaths of millions and met tragic ends themselves.

Leaders take on the role because they are appointed, elected, or emerge into the role through attrition (i.e., when others vacate it, leaving a vacuum that needs filling). Team members play an important role in this process. A democratic leader is elected or chosen by the group, but may also face serious challenges. If individual group members or constituent groups feel neglected or ignored, they may assert that the democratic leader doesn’t represent their interests after all. The democratic leader involves the group in the decision-making process, and ensures group ownership of the resulting decisions and actions as a result. This process is characterized by open and free discussions, and the democratic leader acknowledges this diversity of opinion.

An appointed leader, on the other hand, is designated by an authority to serve in that capacity irrespective of the thoughts or wishes of the group. This could go well or not. Such a leader may accomplish all the designated tasks, perhaps by any means necessary, but a group that refuses to accept their role as leader is going to be a dysfunctional one. The work environment is likely to be a toxic one under such leadership if the appointment is based on cronyism or nepotism (meaning that they became leader only because of who they know or are related to). Such a group will be pulling their tug-o-war rope in divergent directions until the unpopular leader leaves or is forced out (either from above or below) and a new leader properly endorsed by the group  emerges into that office.

An emergent leader is thus different from the first two paths by growing into the role often out of necessity. They may enter into the role merely because they know more than anyone around what needs to be done. When the appointed leader may have leadership skills but know little about the area they manage, group members will naturally look to the most senior experience team member for guidance. If the democratic leader fails to bring the group together, or does not represent the whole group, subgroups may form, each with an informal leader serving as spokesperson. In this way, the emergent leader is favoured in any true meritocracy—i.e., where skill, talent, and experience trump other considerations. Types of Leaders

We can see types of leaders in action and draw on common experience for examples. For good reason, the heart surgeon does not involve everyone democratically in the decision-making process during surgery, is typically appointed to the role through earned degrees and experience, and resembles a military sergeant more than a politician. The autocratic leader is self-directed and often establishes norms and conduct for the group. We can see that this is quite advantageous in certain situations such as open-heart surgery or during a military exercise, but it certainly doesn’t apply in all workplace situations.

Opposite the autocrat is the “live and let live” laissez-faire leader. In a professional setting, such as a college, instructors may bristle at the thought of an autocratic leader telling them what to do. They know how to do their job, having earned their role through time, effort, and experience. A wise laissez-faire leader recognizes this aspect of working with professionals and may choose to focus efforts on providing the instructors with the tools they need to make a positive impact.

Imagine that you’re a television director and have a vision for what the successful pilot program should look like. The script is set, the lighting correct, and the cameras are correctly positioned. You may tell people what to do and where to stand, but you remember that your job is to facilitate the overall process. You work with talented, creative people who know what works best for their role on camera. If you micromanage your actors, they may perform in ways that are not creative and that will not draw audiences. If you let them run wild through improvisation, the program may not go well at all. The challenge of the laissez-faire leader is balancing the need for control with the need for space.

Many types of leaders fall between these poles. Thomas Harris and John Sherblom (1999) specifically note three leadership styles that characterize the modern business or organization, and reflect our modern economy. We are not born leaders but may emerge into these roles if the context or environment requires our skill set. A leader-as-technician role often occurs when we have skills that others do not. If you excel at all aspects of residential construction from having done those jobs yourself, your extensive knowledge and learned ability to coordinate other skilled labourers to complete the many sub-tasks that complete a project on time and on budget are prized and sought-after skills. Technical skills, from Internet technology to facilities maintenance, may experience moments where their particular area of knowledge is required to solve a problem. Their leadership will be in demand.

The leader-as-conductor involves a central role of bringing people together for a common goal. In the common analogy, a conductor leads an orchestra and integrates the specialized skills and sounds of the various components the musical group comprises. In the same way, a leader who conducts may set a vision, create benchmarks, and collaborate with a group as they interpret a set script. Whether it is a beautiful movement in music or a group of teams that comes together to address a common challenge, the leader-as-conductor keeps the time and tempo of the group without necessarily getting their hands dirty like the lead contractor in the previous example.

Coaches are often discussed in business-related books as models of leadership for good reason. A leader-as-coach combines many of the talents and skills we’ve discussed here, serving as a teacher, motivator, and keeper of the goals of the group. A coach may be autocratic at times, give pointed direction without input from the group, and stand on the sidelines while the players do what they’ve trained hard to do. The coach may look out for the group and defend it against bad calls, and may motivate players with words of encouragement. We can recognize some of the behaviours of coaches, but what specific traits have a positive influence on the group? Thomas Peters and Nancy Austin identify five important traits that produce results:

  1. Orientation and education
  2. Nurturing and encouragement
  3. Assessment and correction
  4. Listening and counselling
  5. Establishing group emphasis

Coaches are teachers, motivators, and keepers of the goals of the group. When team members forget that there is no “I” in the word “team,” coaches redirect the individuals’ attention and energy to the overall goals of the group. They conduct the group with a sense of timing and tempo, and at times, relax to let members demonstrate their talents. Through their listening skills and counselling, they come to know each member as an individual, but keep the team focus for all to see. They set an example.

Coaches are human, however, and by definition are not perfect. They can and do prefer some players over others and can display less than professional sideline behaviour when they don’t agree with the referee, but the style of leadership is worthy of your consideration in its multidisciplinary approach. Coaches use more than one style of leadership and adapt to the context and environment. A skilled business communicator will recognize the merits of being an adaptable leader (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 19.5).

Whatever the type of leader, much of their effectiveness comes down to how they communicate their expectations and direction. Some leaders manage by stick and others by carrot—i.e., some prefer to instill fear and command respect (whether earned or not) to get compliance by coercion, whereas others inspire employees to do their best work by a system of rewards including praise (see § and § above). The former usually leads to a toxic work environment where no one does their best work because the conditions are miserable. Someone who doesn’t look forward to going to work because of the psychological turmoil is not going to focus on accomplishing team goals. An employee who admires and gets along with both their manager and co-workers, on the other hand is productive employee motivated to doing good work in pursuit of even more praise and success. Toxic Leadership

We’ve focused for the most part on effective leadership, but what happens if you find yourself working under a horrible boss? It happens. Plenty of people assume positions of authority who are effective in some areas of management (e.g., they are shrewd businesspeople and good with money) but aren’t so good with people, or vice versa. There are even managers who are bad at everything and it’s only a matter of time before they are fired or ruin the operation with incompetence, or they may continue to be propped up by cronyism, nepotism, or some other kind of corruption. Some bosses are even offensive to the point of committing harassment along a spectrum of misbehaviour ranging from inappropriate jokes or rude remarks to outright predatory sexual harassment or assault and violence. Whatever the case, nothing good comes of toxic leadership. Employees just aren’t productive when fearing abuse from their managers or worrying about the their leadership running the operation into the ground.

If the mismanagement is severe—especially if it is physically or emotionally abusive—the best way of dealing with the situation is to leave it. A boss who makes you feel unsafe may suffer from a personality disorder that makes them dangerous, and there’s no fixing that. If you’re in immediate danger, of course you must leave immediately. From there, figure out your options. For starters, familiarize yourself with the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA, 1990) via a guide such as Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law (Ontario Ministry of Labour, 2016). Know that all workplaces are required to have procedures in place for reporting incidents perpetrated by a manager or supervisor to a neutral authority without compromising your employment (OHSA, 1990, sec. 32.0.6. [2] [b]). You could also make a Human Rights Code (1990) complaint (called an application) to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario following advice from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

If you’re not in immediate danger but the situation is too toxic to continue, you must leave as soon as possible. A major red flag is if most of your co-workers agree that your boss is terrible. If leaving is easier said than done because you live paycheque to paycheque and can’t afford to be out of work even for a short while, a well-devised exit strategy is in order. Building a lifeboat in the form of lining up your next stable employment is the best you can do, though it may take time and you may have to do it without a reference from your current employer.

If the toxicity is relatively minor, perhaps the result of some nasty things said here and bad moves there, using internal procedures required of employers by law to address managerial misconduct is the most ethical course of action. It is ultimately the employer’s responsibility to ensure a non-toxic work environment, and if that means disciplinary action going up the chain of command, then it’s worth it to have people doing their best work without hating the people they’re working for. Any OHSA-compliant workplace will have such reporting procedures in place, including provisions to prevent employment-compromising retaliation. With pressure from above and below in the workplace hierarchy, some offending managers may improve their behaviour knowing their job depends on it.

Of course, you must also be good about picking your battles if your leadership isn’t perfect but not horrible either. Managers are under plenty of pressure—especially middle managers who feel it from above and below—and can easily make mistakes such as being gruff when a softer approach would be more appropriate. If you have the type of boss who only talks to you about the one thing you did wrong in a day while saying nothing about the hundred things you did right, this may be a sign of someone who lacks good people skills. It may also be that they’re extremely busy and have time only for quality assurance rather than boosting morale. If your manager isn’t a complete monster, exercising some understanding about the reasons why will make your life and work more tolerable.

11.1.4: Constructive Criticism

Performing work of a high quality is vital not only to your success in any profession but to the success of your team and company. How do you know if the quality of your work is meeting client, manager, co-worker, and other stakeholder expectations? Feedback. Whether this comes as a formal evaluation or informal comments, they’ll tell you whether you’re doing a great job, merely a good one, satisfactory, or a poor one that needs improving because their success depends on the quality of work you do. Poor leadership will merely point out what you’re doing wrong, which is negative feedback or mere criticism, and tell you to fix it without being much help. Good leadership may start with negative feedback and then tell you what you must do to improve. Inspiring leadership skips the negative criticism altogether and surrounds the constructive criticism with praise to effectively boost morale and motivate the worker to seek more praise. This is leading by carrot rather than stick.

Constructive criticism differs from mere negative criticism in that it is focused on improvement with clear, specific instructions for what exactly the receiver must do to meet expectations. If you merely wanted to criticize a report, for instance, you could say it’s terribly written and demand that it be fixed, leaving the writer to figure it out. Of course, if they don’t know what the expectations are, attempts at fixing it may result in yet more disappointment.

If you were offering constructive criticism, however, you would give the writer specific direction on how to improve. You might encourage them to revise and proofread it, perhaps taking advantage of MS Word’s spell checker and grammar checker, as well as perhaps some specific writing-guide review for recurring errors and the help of a second pair of eyes (see Ch. 5 on editing in the writing process). You may even offer to help yourself by going through a part of the report, pointing out how to fix certain errors, and thus guiding the writer to correct similar errors throughout. Of course, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink; if all of these efforts fail to motivate the employee to do better, switching to a more strict, threat-based style of leadership may get the necessary results. Most people don’t like being criticized, and yet sometimes negative feedback is necessary if being too nice doesn’t work. For best results at the outset, however, always start with well-organized constructive criticism. Receiving Constructive Criticism

No one’s perfect, not even you, so your professional success depends on people telling you how to improve your performance. When you receive well-phrased constructive criticism, accept it in good faith as a gift because that’s what it is. If a close friend or colleague nicely tells you to pick out the broccoli between your teeth after lunching with them, they’re doing you the favour of telling you what you don’t know but need to in order to be successful or at least avoid failure. Your enemies, on the other hand, would say nothing, letting you go about your day embarrassing yourself in the hopes that it will contribute to your failure. Constructive criticism is an act of benevolence or mercy meant to improve not only your performance but also that of the team and company as a whole. Done well, constructive criticism is a quality assurance task rather than a personal attack. Be grateful and say thank you when someone is nice enough to look out for your best interests that way.

Receiving constructive criticism gracefully may mean stifling your defensive reflex. Important skills not only in the workplace but in basic communication include being a good listener and being able to take direction. Employees who can’t take direction well soon find themselves out of job because it puts them at odds with the goals of the team and company. Good listening means stifling the defensive reflex in your head before it gets out and has you rudely interrupting the speaker. Even if you begin mounting defenses in your head, you’re not effectively listening to the constructive criticism.

Receiving constructive criticism in a way that assures the speaker that you understand involves completing the communication process discussed in §1.3 above. You can indicate that you’re listening first with your nonverbals:

  • Maintaining eye contact shows that you’re paying close attention to the speaker’s words and nonverbal inflections
  • Nodding your head shows that you’re processing and understanding the information coming in, as well as agreeing
  • Taking notes shows that you’re committing to the information by reviewing it later

Once you understand the constructive criticism, paraphrase it aloud to confirm your understanding. “So you’re basically saying that I should be doing X instead of Y, right?” If the speaker confirms your understanding, follow up by explaining how you’re going to implement the advice to assure them that their efforts in speaking to you won’t be in vain. Apologizing may even be necessary if you were clearly in the wrong (see § above for more on apologizing).

Of course, if the constructive criticism isn’t so constructive—if it’s mere criticism (a “poop sandwich” without bread, to use the phrasing in § below), you would be right to ask for more help and specific direction. If the criticism is just plain wrong, perhaps because your manager is somehow biased or mistaken in thinking you’re at fault when really there are other culprits they are unaware of, respectfully correcting them is the right thing to do. You don’t want management to get the wrong impression about you in case that means you’ll be passed up for promotion down the road. When disagreeing, focus on the faulty points rather than on your feelings even if you’ve taken the feedback as a personal insult. Always maintain professionalism throughout such exchanges. Giving “Poop Sandwich” Constructive Criticism

hamburgerOne of the most important functions of a supervisor or manager is to get the best work out of the people working under them. When those employees’ work leaves room for improvement, it’s the leader’s job to convince them that they can do better with a clear explanation of how. As we saw in § above, clarity and precision are necessary here because the quality of improvement will only be as good as the quality of instruction. As miscommunication, vague and misleading instruction will lead to little-to-no improvement or even more damage from people acting on misunderstandings caused by poor direction. Not only must the content of constructive criticism be of a high quality itself, but its packaging must be such that it properly motivates the receiver.

An effective way of delivering constructive criticism is called the “poop sandwich,” usually said with a more vulgar alternative to “poop.” Like sugar-coating bitter medicine, the idea here is to make the receiver feel good about themselves so that they’re in a receptive frame of mind for hearing, processing, and remembering the constructive criticism. If the constructive criticism (the poop) is focused on improvement and the receiver associates it with the praise that comes before and after (the slices of bread), the purely positive phrasing motivates them to actually improve. Like many other message types we’ve seen (e.g., in §4.1 and §6.1.5 – .7), this one’s organization divides into three parts as shown in Table below.

Table Poop Sandwich Feedback

Feedback Example
1. Sincere, specific praise Your report really impressed me with its organization and visually appealing presentation of your findings. It’s almost perfect.
2. Constructive criticism If there’s anything that you can improve before you send it on to the head office, it’s the writing. Use MS Word’s spellchecker and grammar checker, which will catch most of the errors. Perhaps you could also get Marieke to check it out because she’s got an eagle eye for that sort of thing. The cleaner the writing is, the more the execs will see it as a credible piece worth considering.
3. Sincere, specific praise Otherwise, the report is really great. The abstract is right on point, and the evidence you’ve pulled together makes a really convincing case for investing in blockchain. I totally buy your conclusion that it’ll be the future of financial infrastructure.

Of course, this style of feedback may develop a bad reputation if done poorly, such as giving vague, weak praise (called “damning with faint praise”) when more specific, stronger praise is possible. If done well, however, the poop sandwich tends to make those receiving it feel good about themselves even as they’re motivate to do better.

Poop sandwich feedback can be challenging, however, if the receiver hasn’t done enough praiseworthy work to get two pieces of bread together. In such cases, you can always reach for something to flatter them with (“I like your hair today, but . . . ”) in an attempt to put them at ease, then carefully word the constructive criticism so that it doesn’t put the receiver down. After all, the entire point of the poop sandwich is to make the constructive criticism more palatable by keeping it positive with feel-good sentiment.

11.1.5: Communicating Bad News in Person

We’ve discussed delivering bad news in writing (see §8.3 above), but what about in person? The richness of the face-to-face channel makes it ideal for communicating bad news—more so than in writing. As far as tasks go, however, few people enjoy either giving or receiving bad news this way. Since most people dislike conflict, it’s understandable that they’d prefer to use electronic channels to deliver bad news safely out of range from the uncomfortable sights of its distressing effects. Who enjoys making people sad or angry, making tears run down faces or provoking retaliatory confrontation? Besides being the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, delivering negative news in person can be more effective than not and even necessary in many workplace situations.

The first step involves a clear goal. Stephen Covey (1989) recommends beginning with the end in mind. Do you want your negative news to inform or bring about change? If so, what kind of change and to what degree? A clear conceptualization of the goal allows you to anticipate the possible responses, plan ahead, and get your emotional “house” in order.

Your emotional response to the news and the audience, whether it’s one person or the whole company, will set the tone for the entire interaction. You may feel frustrated, angry, or hurt, but the display of these emotions is often more likely to make the problem worse than to help solve it. Because of mirroring, emotions can be contagious, and people will respond in kind to the emotional tone of the speaker.

If your response involves only one other person, a private, personal meeting is the best option, but it may be unavailable. People often work and contribute to projects from a distance via the internet and may only know each other via email, phone, or web conferencing (e.g., Skype). A personal meeting may be impractical or impossible. How then does one deliver negative news in person? By the best option available to both parties. Written feedback may be an option via email, but it takes time to prepare, send, receive, process, and respond—and the written word has its disadvantages. Miscommunication and misinterpretation can easily occur in the absence of nonverbal cues and the constructive feedback for checking meanings and clarifying perceptions afforded by real-time face-to-face conversation.

A phone call allows both parties to hear each other’s voices, including the words, the inflection, and the emotional elements of conversation. It allows both speakers to check for understanding, ask questions for clarification, and elaborate on points immediately in a reciprocal back-and-forth. Most phone networks offer crystal clear long-distance calling no matter where users are in the world. Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) allows you to do the same with relatively little cost.

Despite its distinct advantages, telephone communication lacks part of the nonverbal spectrum available to speakers in a live setting. On the phone, proximity is a function of response time rather than physical closeness. Time is also synchronous, though the phone crosses time zones and changes the context as one party may have just arrived at work while the other party is leaving for lunch a few time zones away. Body language gets lost in the exchange as well, although many of us continue to make hand gestures on the phone even when our conversational partners cannot see us. The phone allows for a richer communication experience than written communication but can’t quite convey the full range of information needed for delivering bad news. Just as a telephone interview may be used for screening purposes while a live interview is reserved for the final candidates, the live setting is often considered the best option for delivering bad news. If possible, you can use the phone to arrange a face-to-face meeting where you’ll deliver the bad news in person.

If you need to share the bad-news message with a larger audience, you may need to speak to a group or might even have to make a public presentation or speech. For high-profile bad news, for instance, a press conference enables a feedback loop with a question and answer session following the bad-news announcement. From meeting work colleagues in the hallway to a live, onstage audience under camera lights and a barrage of questions from reporters, the personal delivery of bad news is a challenging task that requires the richest channel (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 17.1).

Key Takeaway

key iconAlmost all jobs require advanced teamwork skills, which involve being effective in performing a particular role (e.g., leader) in a working group, contributing to group problem-solving, and both giving and receiving constructive criticism.


1. Think of a group you belong to and identify some of the roles played by its members. Identify your role (give it a label, perhaps based on those given in §10.3.1) and explain how it enriches the group.

2. Consider past group work you’ve done in high school or even recently in college and identify a particular problem you had to overcome to guarantee the group’s success. Did the group as a whole contribute to its solution, or did an individual member have to step up and pull through? Describe your problem-solving procedure. Was it successful immediately or did it require fine-tuning along the way?

3. Identify a problem that can only be solved with teamwork in the profession you’ll enter into upon graduating. Describe the problem-solving process using the seven-step procedure narrated in §10.3.2.

4. Think of a leader you admire and respect, someone who had or has authority of you. How did they become a leader? By appointment, democratic selection, or emergence? How would you characterize their leadership style? Are they autocratic or laissez-faire? Are they like a technician, conductor, or a coach? Do they use the carrot or the stick to get action from the people they have authority over?

5. Roleplay with a classmate the following scenario: You’re a mid-level manager and are concerned about an employee arriving 15-20 minutes late every day, although sometimes it’s around 30-40 minutes. The employee leaves at the same time as everyone else at the end of the day, so that missing work time isn’t made up. What you don’t know (but will find out from talking with the employee) is that they must drop their child off at elementary school shortly before 8am, battle gridlock highway traffic on the way to work (hence the lateness), then leave at a certain time to pick their child up from after-school daycare (hence not being able to stay later). What you do know is that talking with the employee in private is the right way to handle this and that the executive director above you considers it your responsibility to have everyone arriving on time and being paid for their hours as stipulated in their contracts; the director isn’t afraid of firing someone for such a breach of contract, so you have the authority to threaten the employee with that consequence if you feel that it’s necessary. The fact that this employee is being paid for working fewer hours than stipulated in the contract will be a strike against you unless you either get them back on track or fire them if you can’t work their full hours. Be creative in discussing an amicable solution with the employee that satisfies everyone involved. Switch between being both the manager and the employee in your roleplay.


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This chapter is adapted from 11.1: Teamwork in Communication at Work by Jordan Smith.


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Communication at Work Copyright © 2022 by Julie Rivers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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