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Subversive Communication in Organizations: Forms and Leadership Implications


Subversive communication in organizations refers to indirect or covert ways of conveying messages that challenge or undermine authority, policies, or norms within a workplace (Bisel, Kramer, & Banas, 2011). Examples include gossip and rumor-spreading, where unofficial or misinformation is shared to influence perceptions or damage reputations (Michelson & Mouly, 2002); passive-aggressive behavior, which manifests as indirect resistance through procrastination or intentional inefficiency (McLaren, 2013); and sarcasm or humor used to subtly criticize or mock authority figures or policies (Holmes, 2007). Additionally, backchannel communication involves secretive conversations that bypass official communication channels, potentially undermining official decision-making processes (Bisel et al., 2011). These forms of subversive communication can significantly impact organizational culture, trust, and effectiveness, making it crucial for leaders to recognize and address them.


It is crucial for leaders to recognize and address these forms of communication to maintain a healthy organizational culture, trust, and effectiveness. This article explores various forms of subversive communication and discusses why leaders should pay attention to these behaviors.


Forms of Subversive Communication


Gossip and Rumor-Spreading

Gossip involves sharing unofficial information or misinformation, often aimed at influencing perceptions or damaging reputations (Michelson & Mouly, 2002). This can create a climate of mistrust and anxiety within the organization.  Gossip in organizations is not always inherently bad; its impact depends on the context, content, and intent. Gossip is a complex phenomenon with both positive and negative aspects. While it can facilitate social bonding and quick information dissemination, it can also spread misinformation and create a toxic work environment. Leaders should strive to understand the nature and impact of gossip within their organizations, promoting positive uses while mitigating its negative effects.


Positive Aspects of Gossip

Gossip can help build social bonds and foster a sense of belonging among employees  (Dunbar, 2004). Sharing personal information or experiences can strengthen relationships and create a more cohesive team. Gossip can serve as an informal communication channel, disseminating information quickly across the organization (Burt, 2001). This can be particularly useful in large organizations where formal communication channels might be slow or ineffective.  Gossip can reinforce social norms and organizational culture by highlighting behaviors that are either rewarded or punished within the group (Boehm, 1999). It can act as a form of social control, encouraging conformity and discouraging deviant behavior.

               

Negative Aspects of Gossip

Gossip can spread misinformation or unfounded rumors, leading to misunderstandings and a climate of mistrust (Michelson & Mouly, 2002). This can damage reputations and create unnecessary anxiety.  Gossip can be used as a tool for exclusion or bullying, targeting individuals and creating a hostile work environment (Kurland & Pelled, 2000). This can harm employee morale and lead to decreased productivity and increased turnover.  Persistent negative gossip can erode trust within teams and between employees and management (Burt, 2005). A culture of gossip can undermine the effectiveness of formal communication channels and decision-making processes.


Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by indirect resistance to authority or expectations, often manifested through procrastination, stubbornness, or intentional inefficiency (McLaren, 2013). This behavior can disrupt workflows and reduce overall productivity.  An example of passive-aggressive behavior by a manager in an organization could be as follows:

Scenario:

A manager, Alex, is unhappy with one of their team members, Jordan, who consistently arrives a few minutes late to meetings. Instead of addressing the issue directly with Jordan, Alex decides to express their displeasure in a subtle, indirect way.

Behavior:

During a team meeting, Alex pointedly starts the meeting exactly on time and immediately assigns a critical task to Jordan, who arrives just a couple of minutes late. Alex then says, with a forced smile, "Oh, Jordan, glad you could join us. Since you're here now, let's get you started on this important task right away." This comment is intended to highlight Jordan's tardiness without directly confronting the issue.

Impact:

Jordan feels embarrassed and singled out in front of the team, creating an atmosphere of discomfort. The indirect nature of Alex's comment makes it difficult for Jordan to address the situation directly, fostering resentment and reducing team morale. This example illustrates how passive-aggressive behavior can undermine direct   communication and create a negative work environment.


Backchannel Communication

Backchannel communication refers to informal and secretive conversations that bypass official communication channels to discuss sensitive topics (Bisel et al., 2011). While it can serve as a release valve for frustrations, it also undermines official communication and decision-making processes.

Here are some examples of types of backchannel communication:

Private Text Messages and Emails:  Employees using personal text messages or private emails to discuss workplace issues or vent frustrations away from official channels.

Informal Meetings and Gatherings:  Groups of employees meeting informally after work hours or during breaks to discuss organizational changes, policies, or leadership decisions without involving management.

Social Media Platforms:  Employees using private groups or chats on social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack) to share opinions and information that they do not want to communicate through formal workplace channels.

Whisper Networks:  Covert networks where employees share information about management practices, upcoming layoffs, or other sensitive topics through word-of-mouth rather than official announcements.

Lunchroom Conversations:  Discussions that occur in the break room or cafeteria where employees feel more relaxed and speak openly about their concerns and opinions on workplace matters.

Anonymous Feedback:  Providing feedback or suggestions anonymously through surveys, suggestion boxes, or third-party services to avoid direct confrontation or repercussions.

Side Conversations During Meetings:  Employees engaging in whispered side conversations during formal meetings to discuss their true feelings or reactions to what is being presented, often contradicting their public stance.

Cliques and Informal Alliances:  Small groups forming within the organization that communicate privately to influence decisions or protect their interests, often excluding others from their discussions.

These types of backchannel communication can significantly impact organizational dynamics, either by fostering a sense of camaraderie and support among employees or by undermining formal communication channels and leadership authority.


Sarcasm and Humor

Using sarcasm or humor to subtly criticize or mock authority figures or organizational policies is another form of subversive communication (Holmes, 2007). While it may seem harmless, it can foster a culture of cynicism and disrespect.


Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions, or gestures, can convey dissent or disapproval without spoken words (Ekman & Friesen, 1969). These cues can be powerful indicators of underlying dissatisfaction.  This can be especially problematic if it is done in group settings where the person making the gestures does not verbalize their feelings, or when asked, denies any issues. 


Selective Information Sharing

Withholding information or selectively sharing it to manipulate outcomes or control narratives is a common subversive tactic (Detert & Treviño, 2010). This can lead to poor decision-making and mistrust among team members.  Selective information sharing occurs when individuals or groups within an organization deliberately withhold or selectively share information to manipulate outcomes, control narratives, or protect their own interests. This practice can significantly undermine organizational effectiveness. 


How Selective Information Sharing Works

Gatekeeping: Key individuals control the flow of information, deciding what is shared and what is withheld from certain people or groups. This gatekeeping can be used to maintain power or influence over decisions and processes.

Strategic Omissions:  Critical details or updates are intentionally omitted from communications. This might involve leaving out bad news, potential risks, or important context that others need to make informed decisions.

Filtering:  Information is altered or presented in a biased manner to shape perceptions and outcomes. Positive aspects may be exaggerated, while negatives are downplayed or ignored.

Segmented Sharing: Information is shared only with select individuals or groups who are perceived to be allies or who can be influenced to support a particular agenda.

               

How It Undermines the Organization

Decision-Making: Incomplete or biased information leads to poor decision-making. Leaders and teams cannot make sound decisions if they are not fully informed, resulting in strategies and actions that may be flawed or counterproductive (Detert & Treviño, 2010).

Trust and Morale: When employees suspect or discover that information is being selectively shared, it erodes trust in leadership and among colleagues. This mistrust can lower morale and reduce engagement and productivity (Bies & Tripp, 1996).

Communication Breakdown:  Selective information sharing disrupts the flow of communication, creating silos and barriers within the organization. This hampers collaboration, innovation, and the ability to respond quickly to changes or challenges (Tourish & Robson, 2006).

Accountability: Withholding information can be a way to avoid accountability. If key details are missing or hidden, it becomes difficult to hold individuals or groups responsible for outcomes. This lack of accountability can lead to repeated mistakes and systemic issues (Morrison & Milliken, 2000).

Culture of Secrecy:  Over time, selective information sharing can create a culture of secrecy where transparency is lacking. This culture can stifle open communication and lead to an environment where rumors and misinformation thrive (Schein, 2010).

Conflict and Resentment:  When some employees are more informed than others, it creates an uneven playing field that can lead to conflict and resentment. Those who feel left out or misled may become disengaged or actively resistant to organizational initiatives (Jehn, 1995).

Selective information sharing undermines the very foundations of an effective organization: trust, transparency, and open communication. By recognizing and addressing this behavior, leaders can foster a more inclusive and communicative workplace, ultimately leading to better decision-making, higher morale, and a more resilient organization.


Sabotage

This is a fairly easy one to explain as it is usually involves deliberate actions to obstruct or disrupt organizational processes, often disguised as mistakes or accidents (Crino, 1994). This extreme form of subversion can cause significant harm to the organization.


Anonymous Feedback

Providing critical or negative feedback anonymously allows individuals to express concerns without fear of repercussions (Milliken et al., 2003). While it can be constructive, it can also be used to covertly undermine leaders.  Anonymous feedback, while often intended to provide a safe space for employees to voice concerns without fear of reprisal, can also be misused to undermine an organization. 


Individuals may use anonymity to provide false or exaggerated feedback with the intent to harm colleagues or the organization. Without accountability, malicious actors can spread misinformation or create unnecessary panic and conflict (Milliken, Morrison, & Hewlin, 2003).  Anonymous feedback can sometimes lack the specificity and constructiveness needed for meaningful improvement. Vague or overly negative comments without actionable suggestions can demoralize recipients and lead to a culture of blame rather than constructive growth (Roberts & O'Reilly, 1974).


Anonymity can be used to challenge or criticize leadership without providing the context or willingness to engage in dialogue. This can weaken the authority and credibility of leaders, making it difficult for them to maintain respect and order within the organization (Ashforth & Anand, 2003).  When employees rely on anonymous feedback instead of direct communication, it can foster a passive-aggressive culture. This avoidance of face-to-face communication can lead to unresolved issues and persistent underlying tensions (McLaren, 2013). Anonymously submitted complaints or negative feedback can create divisions within teams. If team members suspect or accuse each other of submitting negative feedback, it can lead to distrust and fragmentation within the group (Morrison & Milliken, 2000).

Anonymity removes personal accountability for the feedback given, which can result in less thoughtful or exaggerated comments. This lack of responsibility can undermine the integrity of the feedback process and lead to misguided actions based on unreliable information (Detert & Treviño, 2010).


The impact this has on the organization can be worse than imagined by some of the leadership in the organization.  When negative anonymous feedback is prevalent, it can erode trust between employees and management. Leaders may feel they are under constant, unseen scrutiny, leading to a defensive management style and reduced openness (Bies & Tripp, 1996).  Persistent negative anonymous feedback can create a negative atmosphere, affecting morale and engagement. Employees may feel disheartened if they perceive the organization as hostile or overly critical (Kahn, 1990).  Leaders may struggle to differentiate between genuine concerns and malicious or exaggerated feedback. This ambiguity can lead to decision paralysis or misguided priorities, as leaders attempt to address potentially unfounded issues (Tourish & Robson, 2006).


Symbolic Acts

Using symbols, slogans, or subtle acts of defiance (e.g., dress code violations, symbolic decorations) to express dissent is another subversive method (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). These acts can signal deeper issues within the organization.


Resistance to Change

Quietly undermining change initiatives by not fully participating, spreading doubt, or passively resisting implementation is a common form of subversion (Ford et al., 2008). This resistance can hinder organizational growth and adaptation.

 

Why Leaders Need to Recognize and Pay Attention to Subversive Communication


Early Warning Signs of Issues

Subversive communication often serves as an early indicator of underlying issues, such as dissatisfaction, distrust, or disagreement with leadership or organizational policies (Ashforth & Anand, 2003). Addressing these early can prevent larger problems.


Organizational Culture Indicator

The prevalence of subversive communication can reflect and reinforce a toxic or unhealthy organizational culture (Schein, 2010). Leaders need to understand and address the root causes to foster a more positive and open environment.


Employee Morale and Engagement

Subversive communication can erode trust and morale among employees. By identifying and addressing it, leaders can improve engagement, satisfaction, and overall productivity (Kahn, 1990).


Effective Communication Channels

The existence of subversive communication highlights deficiencies in official communication channels. Leaders can use this insight to improve transparency, trust, and openness within the organization (Tourish & Robson, 2006).


Conflict Resolution

By recognizing and addressing subversive communication, leaders can uncover and resolve hidden conflicts, preventing escalation and promoting a more collaborative and harmonious workplace (Jehn, 1995).


Decision-Making

Subversive communication can skew perceptions and decision-making processes. Leaders who are aware of it can take steps to ensure more accurate and balanced information flows, leading to better decisions (Eisenhardt & Zbaracki, 1992).


Innovation and Feedback

Subversive communication may include valuable feedback and innovative ideas that are not being expressed openly. Leaders can create a safe space for these ideas to be shared constructively (Detert & Burris, 2007).


Preventing Sabotage

Recognizing subversive behaviors early can help prevent actions that may intentionally or unintentionally harm the organization’s operations, reputation, or morale (Crino, 1994).


Building Trust

Addressing subversive communication transparently and constructively can build trust between leadership and employees, demonstrating that concerns and dissenting opinions are valued and addressed (Mishra & Mishra, 1994).


Adapting Leadership Style

Understanding the reasons behind subversive communication can provide leaders with insights into how their style or policies might need to adapt to better meet the needs and expectations of their teams (Goleman, 2000).

 

Putting It All Together:


Subversive communication, usually hidden, indirect, or undetected can significantly impact an organization’s health and effectiveness because communication affects almost every aspect of organizations. Leaders who pay attention to these organizationally unhealthy forms of communication and address them constructively can foster a more positive, transparent, and productive work environment. By understanding and addressing subversive communication, leaders can create a more resilient, responsive, and cohesive organization better equipped to handle internal and external challenges.


About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the owner of CMF Leadership Consulting and currently is the Business/HR Manager for a District Attorney’s office in California. Chris is a Leaderologist II and Vice President of the National Leaderology Association (NLA) who holds a Doctor of Education (Ed. D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is a developer, trainer, consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations since 2010. Chris is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a former National Instructor for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and California P.O.S.T. Courses. Chris is the author of “Liminal Space: Reshaping Leadership and Followership,” "Because Why... Understanding Behavior in Exigencies." and of "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior." Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service leading such teams as the Homicide Team, the Hostage Negotiations Team, the Street-Level Drug Team and the School Police Officer Team.


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