Back-Channel Communication Can Be Toxic
Complaining about others when they aren’t present is a team sport in some organizations. We naturally want to validate how we see events and people with those we trust. When that validation frequently focuses on our frustrations and distaste, this form of communication can become toxic.
When leaders do this with trusted colleagues, team members will follow suit and express their concerns indirectly through others. Over time, this back-channel method of expressing how we really feel about decisions and people can undermine the trust and goodwill needed for teams to perform effectively.
Back-channeling is a form of passive-aggressive behavior that just about everyone engages in at one time or another. It only becomes a serious problem when it is the primary form of expressing negative views on a team. When team members commonly seek out others to vent their frustrations about events, decisions and people, the culture can become venomous.
You know a team has crossed the line and embraced back-channeling when immediately after any group discussion, private conversations occur across the team expressing disagreement with the larger conversation.
Rather than express disagreement “in the room,” where ideas and advocacy can influence decisions, team members use the back channel to express their true views. By reserving their disagreement for after the meeting, they rob the team of its ability to work through disagreement and conflict in a healthy way. This mistrust can destroy a team.
Leaders can have an oversized effect on the team when they engage in this passive-aggressive behavior. When leaders deliberately back-channel their feedback to others without ever expressing it directly to the party involved, they do material harm to their own credibility and sow the seeds of distrust within the team.
Everyone who is trusted by the leader and learns the “dirt” about them from the back-channel also knows this simple fact: leaders who complain about team members with us will, at some point, talk negatively about us to other team members.
The best leaders circumvent the negative effects of back-channeling by asking the team to refrain from this form of communication as much as possible. They swear off similar behavior in their own leadership style, making it a point to avoid back-channeling. Most importantly, they work hard to create an open and safe team culture where disagreement can be expressed openly and productively.
When others stay silent or rarely offer an opposing viewpoint in meetings, the best leaders seek out their opinions in the group setting and attempt to get everyone’s viewpoint on the table where it can be discussed. When disagreement and negative feedback is openly engaged, teams make better decisions and team members learn what they must do to improve.
Don’t let back-channel communication rent space on your team. Raise the rent and ask everyone to disagree openly. Everyone is free to hold their own viewpoint, but how they express it is a matter of team trust. No more back-channel views.