August 29, 2022
Effects of Poor Communication in the Workplace (with Solutions)
Complexity is the name of the game when it comes to today’s fast-paced business environment. This means it's more challenging than ever for leaders to have meaningful, two-way communication with employees.
When looking to improve situations that may have been exacerbated by a lack of communication, it’s helpful to identify the precise problem or barrier, take time to understand the root cause, and then consider what solutions may best be applied to improve poor communications skills and achieve your desired results.
The Importance of Effective Workplace Communication
Effective communication is a critical component of business success. Yet, for most leaders, this can be a significant blind spot that derails relationships, make goals harder to achieve, limits advancement opportunities, and impedes overall business and personal success.
Communicating effectively in the workplace is not just exchanging information. When done well, there is real power in internal communications to move organizations forward, engaging employees in collective action that supports the organization’s mission and vision.
Leaders who consistently communicate the strategy in plain language, and use it as a tool to relate the organization’s initiatives and progress, help inspire and motivate employees, keeping them focused and working together toward success.
What is Poor Communication in the Workplace?
Poor communication is a breakdown that results from a discrepancy or disconnect between what is said and what is understood. This lack of mutual understanding can happen at the interpersonal level between colleagues or at an organizational level.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
- George Bernard Shaw
There are many ways poor workplace communication can happen. While some of these ways may be easier to spot than others, all of them can be harmful to employees and the business as a whole.
Examples of Poor Communication in the Workplace
Delayed Communication from Leadership
In most organizations, regardless of size, the majority of employees would report that their senior leaders don’t communicate frequently enough. Leaders can often delay communication when they feel they don’t have all the answers or have to address a difficult topic, yet employees consistently say they’d rather hear from their leaders early and often.
Forgotten Hybrid or Remote Employees
The hybrid or fully remote environments in which many employees are working today have left many of those employees feeling more left out of critical communication. As a result, employees are regularly asking for increased transparency and detail, as well as more frequent communication including regularly scheduled virtual town halls, Ask Me Anything sessions with leaders, regular team huddles, and more.
Lack of Accountability After the Fact
When leaders ask for feedback, they need to close the communication loop with employees who provide specific suggestions. Even when leaders are unable to act on a particular suggestion, it’s important for them to explain why. Otherwise, employees can easily feel as though their concerns haven’t been heard or that their feedback isn’t truly valued.
Confusion Amid Change
Employees expect to be informed about changes in key personnel and processes that may impact their jobs and their careers, and they look to leadership to make sure they get that information. If change is happening, and leaders aren’t sharing why, the rumor mill can start to churn and complicate or exacerbate an already complex situation. This is obviously not good for employee morale or helpful for keeping the organization focused and motivated. This can also lead to fear, confusion and distrust, which can build over time and potentially hamstring the organization for years to come.
Causes of Poor Communication in the Workplace
It’s not as if management comes to work each day saying, “I want to withhold information.” Likewise, employees don’t say, “I want to screw something up!”
So, why aren’t we communicating better?
Communication problems are often caused by a myriad of challenges, including a leader’s limiting beliefs, lack of clear strategy and objectives, information overload, limited feedback (how do you know you’re doing it right?) and poor leadership tone from the top.
In many cases, poor communication skills can start with one’s foundational beliefs about communication that get in the way:
- We believe we are born as an effective communicator, or that there is a magic pill available, and therefore don’t practice and don’t get better. If you are born with an innate talent for speaking or communicating, you still have to work to develop your effectiveness, which takes time, practice and patience. Think of someone who was born with an incredible amount of natural talent, skill and ability for a particular sport. Even if an athlete has more innate talent than another, if they lack discipline and don’t practice regularly, they may quickly find themselves outpaced or outplayed.
- We’re afraid of failing, and that fear stops us from trying and learning new things or skills. Whether we realize it or not, we all are wired at some level to fear or avoid failure. From a Darwinian standpoint, this avoidance of situations that we are not good at allowed us to stay alive by avoiding danger; neuroscience and psychology tell us today that we still have a bit of this, with theory such as the very familiar idea of “fight or flight.” Essentially, if we have never done it before, and we know we may not be good at it at first, then inadvertently or subconsciously, we avoid doing it.
- We have a mistaken belief that good communication is all common sense. If it is common sense, then it’s unlikely that you’ll put in the effort required to communicate well. People have grown up in different cultures, countries, with different values, have different drives and needs. Therefore, it’s a trap to think, “people think as I do.” Effective communication is complex because how we communicate needs to be adapted by the person, their style and the situation.
- We unintentionally communicate from our own perspective. We’re very clear about what we think in our heads. But communication happens in the mind of the listener, and it’s important to communicate from your audience’s perspective with the focus, detail and attention that real communication demands. Work gets done through others and the more you know about them, the better you’re able to motivate and move them to action.
By addressing these communication pitfalls you will have a different paradigm through which you will view your career, your business effectiveness, your ability to lead others, your ongoing interactions with others, and your decisions. If nothing else, I hope that reflecting on these common pitfalls will fundamentally change how you see your work and how you see communications’ role in your work.
Effects of Poor Workplace Communication
The problems that poor communication, or lack of communication altogether, can create are often not realized until after the issues occur when business and the bottom line suffer, and yet they could have been prevented.
A Lack of Knowing Leads to Negativity
Low productivity results when people don’t have the information or knowledge they feel they need. The reason is straightforward – people tend to avoid situations in which they will be seen as not knowing, not understanding or not having expertise. No one wants to look like they don’t know what’s going on. And just about everyone has a fear – whether based in reality or not – of being embarrassed or mocked.
Think back to school. From early on through grad school, how many times did you hear teachers and professors say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question?” They knew someone had a question – a very good question that would help shed new light on the conversation – that they were simply too afraid to ask.
Employee Mistrust, Absenteeism and Low Morale
Employees want to feel connected to the organization. When they are, they are willing to work harder, smarter, and be active in the workplace in ways that drive business results. When they aren’t engaged, when they don’t feel connected, they suffer. This might seem like a touchy-feely, soft business issue, but unhappy and disconnected employees can profoundly affect business through absenteeism, lack of motivation, and turnover.
Bad Interpersonal Relationships
How often do you see eyes roll? How much muttering do you quietly hear? When people don’t feel connected to each other, it opens up the door for misinterpretation and questioning motives and intent. The lack of feeling respected or listened to – truly listened to – leads people to feel negated. When that happens, they often find ways to “push back,” even when they can’t do it openly or directly.
The “Grapevine Effect”
Marvin Gaye isn’t the only one who’s heard it through the grapevine. No matter how much you might love his Motown hit, you don’t want one of these growing in your organization. Yet, by not sharing information, you ensure a grapevine will sprout – causing problems and distractions. If you aren’t talking proactively about important issues to your employees, chances are that someone else is –regardless of the accuracy and truthfulness of their “information.”
How to Solve Poor Communication in The Workplace
Improving communication involves more than just disseminating the message properly so that it’s heard. It means ensuring that the message resonates with and is understood by the listener(s) in a way that will move them to action. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
We’ve outlined five practical solutions to help you make progress right away:
1. Know Your Audience and Their Needs
The more you know about someone, the better you can listen to them, empathize, support or guide them in the direction you need them to go. Commit to putting in the work necessary in order to understand your audience and their needs, and balance that with the needs of the business. By understanding and listening intently to employees, you are able to better meet your employees’ strategic communication needs.
2. Communicate The Right Messages at The Right Times
Focus on high-visibility, high-frequency communications, setting detailed communication plans that allow for regular authentic and candid conversations with employees and ensuring a smart cadence or rhythm to meet the needs of the team and business.
3. Frame The Context and Make It Relevant
Context is key, along with making your messages super relevant to employees. As leaders, part of our role is to create a shared organizational context. You achieve this when you connect the dots between what you say and what your employees already know by setting context in terms of where your listener is coming from. Bring your communications leaders to the table early when key business decisions are being made. They can ensure the top questions and concerns on employees’ minds are factored in as policies are shaped.
4. Use The Right Channels to Communicate with Impact
The right message, delivered at the right time, via the right channels, goes a long way toward closing communication gaps or addressing communications issues. Leaders have a wide range of options for communication channels today, and the list of channels keeps growing. With more options to choose from, leaders need to ensure channels are selected strategically so employees aren’t victims of information overload.
5. Measure Your Communications to Guide Solutions
Measurement doesn’t just show the numbers behind your efforts, but can zero in on employee perspectives, how communications are resonating, if they’re getting the information they need where they want it, and much more. Measurement helps you document progress and help leaders understand how and why to make smart decisions that will ultimately help you achieve your business and communications objectives. By creating a baseline from which to measure progress and success, you can identity key issues and pinpoint critical areas for action. It can also build and/or reinforce your case for resources – both people and dollars – as you look towards fixing any communications issues. Always remember, what gets measured, gets done.
As evidenced by a time of unprecedent uncertainly and ever-present change, good employee communication can turn strategy into action and keep employees focused on what matters. There’s a real opportunity for organizations to elevate engagement, performance and productivity by addressing issues of poor communication in the workplace. By making communication improvement a top priority, you can drive meaningful engagement, change, and results, turning a good organization into a great one.
How has poor communication impacted your organization, and how might some of these solutions be helpful?
This new report covers what we see as three of the biggest trends impacting communicators today and offers guidance for managing the challenges that emerge with them. Download the 3 Biggest Business Trends Impacting Communicators Now eBook today.
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