Destructive Organizational Communication
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Destructive Organizational Communication

Processes, Consequences, and Constructive Ways of Organizing

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Beverly Davenport Sypher, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Beverly Davenport Sypher

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eBook - ePub

Destructive Organizational Communication

Processes, Consequences, and Constructive Ways of Organizing

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Beverly Davenport Sypher, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Beverly Davenport Sypher

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Über dieses Buch

This volume provides an in-depth consideration of destructive communication in organizations -- including workplace bullying, racism, stress, and harassment. It brings together communication scholars from theoretical and applied perspectives to assess current understandings, explore ways to integrate theory and practice, identify areas for change, and outline a research agenda for the coming decade. Each chapter examines a specific aspect of destructive organizational communication, reviews existing theory and research about that communicative form or ideology, suggests fruitful possibilities for application, and suggests key areas for further study. As such, the book opens a dialogue among communication scholars that explores destructive communication in organizations and addresses the following key components:

  • the central issues and concerns regarding destructive organizational communication,
  • current scholarly contributions to both applied and theoretical understanding of these issues,
  • approaches to integrate applied/experienced and theoretical/conceptual perspectives in ways that inform one another and improve organizational considerations for varied stakeholders, and
  • suggestions for a future research agenda for those interested in ameliorating the destructive side of organizational communication.

Overall, the collection provides a basic understanding of the different types of destructive communication in organizations, the processes through which these interactions occur, the consequences to individuals and organizations, and the potential for organizing in more constructive, civil ways. This volume will be an excellent resource for scholars and researcher studying organizational communication, and graduate and advanced undergraduate students in organizational communication. It will also resonate with managers dealing with hostile workplaces, and organizational members trying to understand their current experiences. The book will serve as an excellent textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in organizational communication.

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Part I
Various Forms of Destructive Organizational Communication

Chapter 1
Emotional Tyranny at Work

Suppressing the Moral Emotions

Vincent Waldron

I felt angry—humiliated and betrayed. [I] felt like I had been stabbed in the back, with no way to defend myself or explain my position. Because of the audience, I probably would not have confronted the senior management person in this meeting, even if time permitted
. He forever damaged my credibility. (Adapted from Waldron, 2000, p. 67)
Raul,1 a middle manager at a large American banking firm, was criticized by his boss pointedly, unexpectedly, and most bothersome to him, very publicly. Indeed, this incident occurred during Raul’s presentation before a monthly gathering of senior managers and Raul’s own staff. His recollection bristles with an emotional intensity seldom associated with the workplace. Nonetheless, Raul’s report is surprisingly typical of those I have collected fromemployees working in a wide variety of organizational settings. As Raul sees it, the disrespectful treatment he received from his boss was designed to embarrass him, to “put me in my place,” to send a forceful message to an up-and-coming subordinate about who was really in charge. Undeniably, many veteran employees readily recall similar instances of what I have come to call emotional tyranny—the use of emotion by powerful organization members in a manner that is perceived to be destructive, controlling, unjust, and even cruel.
Emotional tyranny is sometimes a strategic ploy of an individual bent on acquiring or maintaining power. At other times it is a collective exercise, perpetrated by a cast of cooperating organization members. But emotional tyranny also emerges as an unintended consequence of organizational structures, values, and practices. It is by no means commonplace, but it often yields harmful and lasting effects on individuals, relationships, and organizations. Even years later, Raul feels a certain bitterness, and he has learned to be “careful about whom to trust.” This highly emotional event was a negative turning point in what was already a strained supervisory relationship. Dispirited by this and similar instances of emotional abuse, Raul began searching for an organization with a more supportive culture. When he finally left the bank, Raul took with him expertise developed through several years of apprenticeship and an intercultural savvy developed as one of the bank’s few Hispanic managers.
In this chapter I explore the communicative aspects of emotional tyranny. In doing so, I draw the reader’s attention to verbal and nonverbal tactics, interactive processes, and the discourse of workplace emotion. As with any brand of tyranny, communication is simply one element, albeit an important one, of a larger destructive process. But by necessity I spend relatively less of this limited space on the important political, occupational, and economic factors that can encourage powerful people to wreak emotional havoc. I also note that some emotions are undeniably intrasychic, biologically-grounded experiences (e.g., a fearful reaction to heights). Nevertheless, my work is concerned with the decidedly social aspects of emotion. Those taking a social constructionist view of emotion call our attention to the intersection of emotion, language, and normative behavior (Averill, 1983). From this perspective, emotional experiences such as embarrassment or shame or anger are reactions to violations of moral codes, by ourselves or by those who share our communities. The language of affect is also of interest to social constructionists because we frequently use emotion words and phrases to communicate our moral sensibilities. Consider such phrases as these, reported by various employees: “I couldn’t be proud of the hurtful things I said that day,” or “I was so angry at the way I was disrespected by the new employees,” and “He got to work closely with the boss, and I was incredibly jealous of him.”
This chapter is grounded in workers’ experiences of emotional tyranny—anger, pride, indignation, and other “moral emotions”—collected through surveys, interviews, and the author’s observations (Waldron, 1994, 1999, 2000, 2003; Waldron & Kelley, 2008; Waldron & Krone, 1991). They were shared by probation officers, factory workers located in a rural southern community, data entry and supervisory staff at a large urban bank, a large sample of service workers, state employees from three agencies, and members of human service organizations serving unemployed persons and those living with AIDS. Where illustrative (and prudent), I also draw from my own experiences working at a large state university where rapid change, limited oversight, and the centralization of power have created conditions ripe for emotional tyranny. Because of the focus of this volume, I address most extensively those emotional experiences that involve encounters with more powerful employees (one of the most common of emotional experiences reported in my own studies).
After a brief review of how theorists have conceptualized emotion at work, this chapter examines work relationships as sites of emotional abuse. The “moral” emotions are described and the practices of emotional tyrants are examined, with particular emphasis on their emotional weaponry, communicative tactics, and efforts to manipulate the cultural values that shape the emotional dimensions of work. Finally, drawing from Weiner (2006), I argue that emotional tyranny can be fruitfully conceptualized as an effort to control the moral infraction–cognitive assessment–emotional communication cycle.

Emotion at Work: A Brief Introduction

Historically, emotion was considered by management theorists to be a relatively blunt force—the fear by which workers might be motivated or the subjective sense of satisfaction reported by the happy employees of well-run companies. So, for early organizational theorists, the study of emotion was subjugated to larger concerns for employee motivation or job satisfaction, what Miller and colleagues classified as “emotion toward work” (Miller, Considine, & Garner, 2007). But in recent decades, the study of emotion at work has become nuanced and rich. A turning point was Arlie Hochschild’s (1983) publication of The Managed Heart, a seminal analysis of the labor performed by airline attendants and other service employees. Drawing from earlier fieldwork (Hochschild, 1979), her book described in vivid detail the performance of what she called emotional labor. Hochschild observed that for many service workers, emotion is not simply a reaction to work, it is the work. When emotion is work, emotional performances are dictated by management, taught through training, and enforced through surveillance techniques, such as customer satisfaction surveys (“Was your server cheerful at all times?”) and “secret shopper” programs.
For these reasons, emotional labor often produces inauthentic emotion. Hochschild’s (1983) airline attendants were expected to fabricate such emotions as cheerfulness, to repress their anger at obnoxious customers, and to transmute one emotion, such as fear, into another, more acceptable one, such as sympathy. As such, emotional laborers learn feeling rules. Some of these regulate how emotion is communicated. “Never get angry with a customer,” is a familiar example. Other rules guide interpretation. They help employees know what counts as organizationally-legitimate emotional experiences. Statements like, “Wipe that smile off your face,” and “That is nothing to be proud of,” instruct employees (and children) in the emotion rules of working life (Waldron, 1994). Interestingly, these kinds of directives are doubly communicative in that they are also messages about the rules of emotional communication. More interesting still, they often draw their force from their emotional tone. As will be discussed, lower-power workers are sometimes intimidated or shamed into compliance with community codes of behavior, including those concerning the expression of emotion.
Building on Hochschild’s contributions, researchers extended the study of emotional displays to convenience store clerks (Sutton & Rafaeli, 1988) and Disneyland employees (Van Maanen & Kunda, 1989). It quickly became evident that some work was authentically emotional by its very nature, including that performed by criminal investigators and detectives (Rafaeli & Sutton, 1991; Stenross & Kleinman, 1989), 911 operators (Tracy & Tracy, 1998), and corrections officers (Tracy, 2005). As this literature developed theorists argued that unremitting emotional labor and the dissonance workers experienced between felt emotion and role-required expressed emotion could have harmful consequences, including identity loss, stress, and burnout (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993; Morris & Feldman, 1996). Some feminist scholars argued that simplistic conceptions of workplace emotion are a legacy of patriarchal assumptions that dichotomize emotion and reason (Myerson, 2000). More recent reviews of the emotion-related scholarship (Briner, 2004; Fineman, 2000) broaden and deepen our understanding of organizational emotion as a cultural and relational phenomenon. For example, the notion of bounded emotionality (Mumby & Putnam, 1992) describes the balancing of individual needs for authentic and spontaneous emotional expression, with relational requirements and organizational control (Martin, Knopoff, & Beckman, 2000). Workplace emotion is now understood as a phenomenon that flows across organizational boundaries—one deeply connected to domestic life and the practices of the larger popular culture (Waldron, 2000).
One theme that has emerged in my more recent work (Waldron, 2000; Waldron & Kelley, 2008) and that of others (e.g., Harlos & Pinder, 2000) involves its connection to issues of relational morality and justice. The narratives workers tell about intensely emotional events are often relational morality tales (Miller et al., 2007). Even those workers who perform emotionally daunting roles (probation officers, social workers, prison guards) rarely cite their tasks in these narratives. Instead they describe disloyal coworkers, disrespectful supervisors, cold-hearted peers, inequitable relationships, and other relational threats. Abuses of relational power are the subject of some of the most alarming, emotionally painful, sometimes chilling, accounts.

Organizational Relationships as Sites for Emotional Abuse

Organizational relationships are, for at least four reasons, unique contexts for the study of emotional communication. First, power differences abound in workplace relationships. Leaders are empowered to make evaluations, bolstering or threatening a member’s work identity through recognition or criticism. Interactions with leaders can be risky; success or failure is linked with economic risk and career consequences. For that reason, it is not surprising that certain kinds of work interactions are tinged with the emotion of fear. As just one example, the traditional reluctance of employees to be the bearers of bad news can be attributed in part to fear of the consequences (Wagoner & Waldron, 1999). But supervisors too may approach these interactions with trepidation, sometimes hesitating to deliver negative feedback for fear of the emotional toll it may take on the worker or the relational harm it may cause (Larson, 1989). Fear, frustration, and rage often appear in narratives about supervisory abuses of power. Hopeless despair or burning indignation may be the emotional reaction to repeated and persistent misuses of power.
Second, workplace encounters can be excruciatingly public, as they are frequently witnessed by an audience of peers, customers, or supervisors. The quote beginning this chapter is testimony to the feelings of embarrassment that compound difficult work interactions. Raul’s feelings will only be intensified as he contemplates the working of his organization’s informal communication network. Witnesses will share his fate in whispers as they gather around the office water cooler. Indeed, who has not been tempted to pass along rumors of a coworker’s humiliation at the hands of an emotionally-insensitive boss, the coworker who “lost it” during a tense meeting, or perhaps, the unsettling sight of an employee brought to tears by a nasty coworker or customer? Workplace emotion buzzes along the communicative corridors of nearly every organization, changing in intensity and form as it goes, sometimes building a collective feeling of outrage, excitement, despair, or confidence. This kind of second-order emotional reaction, linked only tenuously to the original encounter, tells us that organizational emotion is not only witnessed by a public, it is also created through a public’s interactions.
A third unique feature of organizational emotion is its enmeshment in work roles. The performance of emotion is simply expected from the occupants of many work roles. Inspiring teachers are expected to produce emotionally arresting lectures; police officers must project a sense of emotional calm under the most stressful of circumstances; competitive athletes work themselves into a frenzy of excitement; on cue, campaigning politicians display their feelings of compassion, moral outrage, and patriotic pride, hoping to make a connection with emotionally-perceptive voters. These emotional performances are familiar and well-documented (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000), but less appreciated are the more subtle emotional performances that sustain typical work relationships. Success in this arena is evaluated frequently, both formally and informally. Team members who fail to appear sufficiently enthusiastic may be subtly sanctioned by coworkers who question their commitment. A newly promoted manager may be “brought down to earth” by the biting comments of less favored employees, especially if he or she appears excessively proud at this good fortune. Those who flatter the new boss with obsequious emotional displays may themselves be subject to unflattering labels—“brownnoser” and “pet poodle” are among those reported in surveys.
Finally, a unique thing about emotion at work is, interestingly enough, its failure to be bounded by the workplace. The joys and disappointments of our larger lives come to work with us, and emotions we experience at work follow us home. Although “a professional” may be encouraged to check these boundary-crossing emotions at the office door, this is sometimes impossible. In fact, emotional behavior is more likely to be overlooked if coworkers know, for example, that an employee is in the midst of an “emotionally-messy” divorce. However, recognizing that any type of communal arrangement requires some degree of emotional constraint, workers strive to “keep things under control,” to “put a lid on it,” even on the most trying days. Unedited venting and emotional exhaustion can be the unattractive alternatives to this collective attempt at emotional censorship. Emotions repressed at work, however, are sometimes displaced. At home, family members may become the unwitting targets of suppressed anger. Other emotions may be displaced as well. Family members are usually safer audiences for expressions of envy at coworkers, fear of abusive supervisors, and indignation over unjust practices. However, habitual displacement may lead to emotional fatigue among family members and supportive fr...


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APA 6 Citation

[author missing]. (2010). Destructive Organizational Communication (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2010)

Chicago Citation

[author missing]. (2010) 2010. Destructive Organizational Communication. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

[author missing] (2010) Destructive Organizational Communication. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

[author missing]. Destructive Organizational Communication. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.