Problematic communication in the workplace: beliefs of superiors and subordinates


John Gardner School of Psychology University of Queensland St Lucia, Q 4067 e-mail:


This study investigated the beliefs of superiors and subordinates in different organisations about what constituted “best” and “worst” communicative behaviours. 358 full-time workers in public and private sector companies were recruited from public service interpersonal skills training courses and undergraduate business and psychology courses. Subordinates and superiors completed a questionnaire describing four communication scenarios with their counterparts. For each scenario, participants described what would be the best or worst communicative behaviours for that situation, as well as their communicative goals. These behaviours and goals were thematically coded using a system based on Communication Accommodation Theory. The behaviours and goals described by superiors and subordinates were then compared for best and worst communication. The results showed that superiors and subordinates hold similar beliefs about best-case communication but more distinct beliefs about worst-case communication. Best-case communication was about sharing management of the conversation and achieving clarity. Worst-case communication involved face threats, aggression and crossing intergroup boundaries; however, superiors talked more about positive face threats whereas subordinates talked about negative face threats.