Failure to communicate. Often touted as the cause of many workplace problems, poor communication is also often a symptom.
Communication within any organization is a complicated flow. Directives breeze along from the top down. Ideas and information, from the bottom up. Departments and work groups send and receive communication laterally. And don’t forget the external communication flowing in and out of any organization.
When workplace communication is functioning well, employees get information in a timely manner exactly as it was intended by the sender. Leaders and workers make informed and timely decisions. And employees are engaged. But when this flow encounters friction of any kind, messages are slowed, distorted and sometimes they never get to the person who needs the information.
A school librarian friend of mine spoke of communication problems within her elementary school. Her school’s new principal has created a leadership team. Now, new initiatives and programs aren’t reaching her and other teachers and staff intact. This extra vertical layer (while providing support to this leader) is inhibiting the flow of communication. She’s frustrated—hearing bits of things second hand—and feeling left out of the loop. Having to pass her own ideas and feedback up through this same filter also leaves her wondering if her communication ever gets to the principal.
Low morale, decreased productivity, high turnover and conflict are all signs of poor communication, according to bizfluent.com. But poor communication isn’t necessarily intentional and can often signal a whole set of underlying causes. Get to the root cause so you can reestablish the flow.
Consider these possible causes of workplace communication problems:
- Not enough personal contact. People build trust by interacting face-to-face. When these interactions don’t happen, employees begin to feel disconnected and eventually disengaged. Tall organizational structures—those that put too much distance between workers at the top and workers at the bottom of the hierarchy—could cause this. Additionally, the availability of new technology makes communicating easier but less personal (and more susceptible to misunderstandings). Finally, a manager’s over-reliance on email could signal poor communication skills or a lack of understanding of the importance of this one-on-one contact.
- Unclear original messages. Clear communication depends on both the sender and the receiver (and in a multi-level organization, all the senders and receivers in between). If the message is confusing to begin with, it’s unlikely to be understood or passed on accurately. Also, little things like a mismatch between the body language and the message can distort meaning. And when difficult times push employers to give vague information, employees quickly stop listening … and trusting.
- Breakdown in chain of communication. Formal workplace communication usually moves through specified channels. When someone in that chain doesn’t share the information as planned in a timely manner, others are left out of the loop. Decisions are made without full information. Time is wasted. Work is duplicated.
- Confusing organizational structure or objectives. When it’s unclear who’s in charge or what an organization’s objectives are, communication is likely to suffer because employees have conflicting priorities and don’t know who to include when reporting back. This could happen in cases where projects overlap or where employees are reporting to more than one boss.
- Poor listening. The receiver shares responsibility in communication. If they’re not listening fully, don’t ask questions about aspects that aren’t clear or don’t paraphrase to help ensure they truly understand, communication can go south in a hurry. (A lack of trust can also be a factor in listening well.)
- Bad attitudes and low morale. Good communication takes effort. And if employees are unhappy, feel unappreciated or disrespected, they’re less likely to care about communicating well. “The boss doesn’t care about me, so why should I bother to tell her about that feedback I got from a customer.” Similarly, if there’s ongoing friction between colleagues, communication can slip. So it’s important to consider the team’s emotional state and interactions when trying to identify the source of communication problems.
- Cultural differences. Workplace diversity is on the rise and associated with many positive outcomes. But these differences in background or experience can make communication disconnects and misunderstandings more likely. Nonverbal communication is also very different between cultures. Special care must be taken to ensure strong communication when diversity is high.
How to fix the root causes of communication problems:
- Get personal with face-to-face communication. Stronger relationships will build trust and connections.
- Be sure your messages are clear and specific … and as honest as possible
- If your communication isn’t passing directly to all intended recipients, double check to make sure the chain is functioning
- Ask employees about any conflicting responsibilities and help them prioritize
- Notice if employees are asking good questions, paraphrasing, etc.—the signs of good listening
- Pay attention to morale
- Where diversity is great, check in with employees to ensure special care is given to clear communication
Poor workplace communication slows decision making. It disrupts innovation. It damages morale and causes mistakes and confusion. Getting to the root of the problem can be challenging because poor communication is both a symptom and a cause. Separating cause from effect is key in diagnosing and fixing communication problems.