What is Back-Channeling at Work?
Back-channeling conversations at work are those that happen in secret and conflict with the larger discussion. These dysfunctional work conversations often occur just after a team meeting when an individual:
- Disagrees with decisions that have been made
- Feels that their self-interests are threatened or slighted
- Is critical of a teammate’s character, competence, behavior, or opinions
Then, instead of voicing their concerns directly, the individual shares their beliefs with a third party. It may take the form of venting or gossip. But, however it occurs, it can be culturally toxic and decrease team performance and engagement.
We’ve All Been Guilty
To some degree, it’s a common reaction to walk away from a disappointing work meeting and gripe a bit with a colleague about what left you unsatisfied — an outcome you disagree with or a coworker who annoyed you. It’s a way to air your frustration. But, even without intent to do harm, it can have a very damaging effect on your team’s culture.
The Negative Repercussions
When back-channeling becomes a frequent and accepted mode of communication, it undermines mutual trust, effective teamwork, and ultimately team performance. Back-channeling has significant costs:
- An Assault on Trust
First think about how even a bit of gossip can be hurtful. It may start as a way to collaborate and bond with the listener. But it can quickly be spread whether it’s true or not. And it undermines the trust team members need to have in each other to be open and honest.
Negative side bar comments can not only reflect badly on the judgment and integrity of the speaker but can also infect the team as a whole.
- A Blow to Productivity
When you walk away from a meeting and confide that you don’t agree with the decisions made (and yet didn’t speak up at the time), you set up a pattern that undermines team cohesion. Our organizational alignment research found that clarity accounts for 31% of the difference between high and low performing teams. And the more complex the situation, the more that back-channeling impedes performance.
Without open, honest, and transparent alignment and commitment to goals, roles, success metrics, and interdependencies, teams struggle to perform at their peak. This results in frustration, finger pointing, rework, and duplicated effort.
- A Strike Against Diversity
Be aware that side conversations can be discriminatory. When certain factions are not included in discussions that involve important decisions and strategies, their power to contribute is seriously undermined. We have all heard the concerns about how the “old boys’ network” can exclude women and others from the decision-making process.
Know that every time an individual includes someone in a side conversation, they are excluding someone else.
How to Combat Back-Channeling at Work
The first step in reversing the back-channeling habit is to create a culture which supports open, direct communication — where employees at all levels feel safe in offering their feedback and ideas. Of course, these more open conversations need to follow some rules. Differing opinions need to be voiced and listened to with respect. Concerns should be aired with the aim of reaching agreement and making decisions rather than as a chance to vent.
To Have More Constructive Conversations
- When You Are the Leader
If you are the Leader and think that side conversations may be happening, invest the time to understand why your team does not feel comfortable voicing their opinion. The goal is to make it easy for everyone to voice concerns safely and feel heard. You will know you are on the right path when people believe that open discussion is encouraged, new ideas are welcome, concerns are taken seriously, and constructive debate is expected.
- When You Are the Third Party
If you are the third party, put a stop to the negative dynamics of back-channeling at work by extracting yourself from the middle of the complaint.
Try saying things like “That is a pretty damaging statement. Do you have any data to back that up?” or “I do not feel comfortable having this side conversation as it impacts the entire team. Can you bring this up to the group?” or “I’m not sure I understand why you are speaking to me about this. Shouldn’t you speak directly with them about it?”
The goal is to explicitly model better behavior and to make it too uncomfortable for people to have unproductive side conversations with you. If the person does not take the hint, then be direct about how you are perceiving their actions and why you would like them to keep you out of the middle. Remember, if you collude with them, you become part of the problem.
- When You Are the Back-Channeler
First, ask yourself why you are not being open and direct. While it may feel OK, you are just decreasing your personal influence — and, whether you believe it or not, everyone around you knows it. If you need help or feedback to change this toxic tendency, then get a coach, mentor, or peer to help you out. Communication is challenging enough in the best of times; do not make it worse.
You will know you are on the right path when you share your criticism directly with the person who has responsibility for the situation, voice your concerns and reasoning openly in meetings, and remain loyal in all communications to those who are absent.
The Bottom Line
Avoiding straightforward, direct conversations is harmful in the long-term to yourself and to the team. When you talk about people and strategies secretively with others, you promote a toxic culture that threatens your team’s performance and the organization’s success. Work with the team to foster better, more effective, more honest communication practices.
To learn more about building a high performing team, download 6 Ways to Foster Better Project Team Collaboration