Communication Breakdown at Work? Here's What to Do
Communication is essential in, well, life.
You need it to foster and maintain relationships. To express needs and wants, convey information, set expectations. And it’s not just what you say. It’s your body language, your tone of voice, the tools and methods you use to communicate.
Effective workplace communication is an invaluable skill, especially for managers. Yet, communication breakdowns occur often, and they have far-reaching consequences.
What’s Behind a Communication Breakdown?
A communication breakdown is defined as a lack of communication or a failure to effectively share knowledge or information.
Some examples of these communication issues include an employee failing to perform a task correctly, certain vital tasks going unfinished, or multiple employees unknowingly working on the same task.
Communication breakdowns occur for a number of reasons, but they all lead back to poor communication. Misunderstandings, lack of active listening skills, lack of processes, distrust.
And when a communication breakdown occurs, workplaces experience increased stress, decreased productivity, low morale, conflict and lost opportunities.
Forbes’ 2023 State of Workplace Communication found only 11% of workers said they were not impacted by poor communication.
- Nearly 50% said ineffective communication impacted job satisfaction
- 49% said it impacted their productivity
- 42% said it impacted their stress levels
- More than 40% said it reduced trust in leadership and their team
How to Stop a Communication Breakdown From Derailing Your Team
Communication is vital to your team’s success, so don’t let it become a barrier.
Here’s what experts have to say on identifying and solving communication breakdowns.
Lean Into Consistent Processes
Communication breakdowns are more likely to occur when teams fail to establish a foundational structure, boundaries and trust at the outset, said Katie Sanders, intranet manager at The Smith Family. Consistency, she said, is also key.
“Even if the processes are simple, no-frills, they will be most successful if everyone is clear on how the team gets things done and what’s expected of them.”
When someone is difficult to reach, wifi goes offline or deadlines change, she added, team members can fall back on the predictable routine in place and carry on with the reliable method for delivery instead of dwelling on communication barriers.
On the flip side, she said, inconsistency in processes around collaboration and communication can cause confusion and inconsistent engagement. Why? Because people need and want predictable routines.
“If the channels for information sharing are used inconsistently, meeting formats change frequently and processes for information management aren’t well communicated, understood and embedded, then a remote and hybrid workplace model is likely to inflame such challenges and make it more difficult to get the team into a state of productive flow and momentum," Sanders said.
Create a Communication Schedule
The switch to digital work has led to asynchronous and unscheduled communications. And in many cases, said Suzanne Vitale, corporate communications professional and consultant, the flow of communication slows down for people who work remotely.
“Your extroverts are lonely, and your introverts are in their glory. Either way, isolation is a killer for communication, community, the sharing of ideas, feedback and all the things that make working work,” she explained.
To keep communication a vital part of business, she recommends helping teams create a communication tempo — a schedule of talking and collaborating with each other.
“This can be weekly on-screen virtual meet-ups, a periodic get-together before or after work for casual conversation (no-stress camaraderie) or other types of meetings.”
The simple act of conversing with one another, said Vitale, is important in keeping teams running smoothly. “It’s like a car — it needs oil to work properly and gas to run. Teams need collaboration that inspires them to run.”
Unite Corporate Language Strategy
Language is the structure upon which corporate strategy is built, said Vitale.
“If the language used isn’t united, there is misalignment in your corporate body. It’s important to be careful with the language we use to communicate across the company.”
Some simple but applicable examples, she added, include: colleague vs. coworker; client vs. customer; transformation vs. change; equity vs. equality.
“The digital workplace has an entirely new vernacular, understood by some but not all. To move forward, companies need to speak internally using one voice, and that means a united vocabulary.”
It’s natural for jargon and styles of communication to evolve as younger employees and professionals from other industries enter the workplace, she said. However, buzzwords are often misunderstood and industry lingo can become overused and ambiguous.
“Corporate language, on a global scale, is a challenge all its own. This is a challenge technology cannot solve for us. However, communicators can, through education and reinforcement of the employer’s internal language.”
Related Article: Want to Improve Internal Communications? Pay Attention to These 2 Key Moments
Don’t Assume, Ask
According to Chris Fenning, award-winning author of “The First Minute: How to Start Conversations That Get Results” and other titles, the most common communication breakdowns are characterized by thoughts or sentences that start with: “Oh. I thought you meant …”
“This one simple sentence immediately shows there was a breakdown in communication,” he said. “The person receiving the message didn’t understand what the message really meant.”
There are lots of reasons why this happens, he said, with the two most common being:
- We assume other people understand what we’re talking about
- We don’t check if people truly understand what we’re talking about
“With the increase in remote and hybrid working, we don’t get the same visual cues as we would if we were in person,” he said. “It is easier to notice confusion when we are in the same room as someone. It's harder when they are one of many tiny images on our screen.”
Today, to communicate effectively, the onus is on the speaker to not assume but ask. Ask if you shared your message clearly. Ask if anyone has questions that you can clear up. This simple action can prevent a lot of headaches down the road.
Explore Communication Preferences
There are a lot of ways — and a lot of tools — to communicate. Some people may prefer instant messaging platforms for internal communication. Others might lean toward email or the company intranet.
Leaders should explore their team members’ communication preferences and go where they are to participate in conversations about work or daily life, said Sanders.
“Online collaboration spaces provide a window into the workplace culture, and the pace of online discussion is so rapid these days that it's easy to get left behind without occasional participation,” she explained.
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It’s exciting when leaders relax into less formal collaboration spaces and adapt the organic style of communication these channels foster, she said. “They can also be a goldmine for stories, sentiment and observation of the organizational priorities and culture — all shared from the coal face!”
Teach Communication to All Employees
There are two types of people leaders should be on the lookout for, said Fenning: people who can’t get to the point, and people who can’t make their messages relevant, relatable and jargon-free.
“These two issues waste time and cause confusion, both of which cost businesses money,” he said. And when you see them happening often, it’s a sure sign that something needs to change.
“Leaders can help by providing time, resources and support for communication skills training. Future issues will only be prevented when the root cause of the breakdown has been removed — that means providing training and support to the people who need it.”
It doesn’t mean, however, that everyone needs to be a champion public speaker, he said. It simply means focusing on basic skills like writing summaries, structuring emails and running effective meetings.
One tip from Fenning: Partner with universities to provide relevant communication skills training to students. "This gives students the skills they need before they join the workforce.”
Bring Diverse Groups Together
One big cause of communication breakdowns in the workplace is that customer-facing employees and internal-only employees often don’t have the chance to trade their preferences on work, said Vitale.
“That’s like the right hand not knowing what the left is doing,” she said.
Instead, she recommends management offers ways for these groups with different backgrounds to educate and share their perspectives with one another.
“When the right hand understands what the left is doing … good things like relationship-building and knowledge-sharing are bound to happen.”
Related Article: Effective Internal Communications Are Essential to the High Performance Workplace
Choose Communication Tools Carefully
Companies tend to focus on the “seen” rather than the “unseen,” said Vitale. To entice employees to return to the office, she explained, corporate leaders communicate about the ‘what/where’ — new gadgets, cool break areas, physical attributes of new office layouts.
“Instead, effort should be applied to the ‘how’ employees will work together through the use of collaborative tools and digital platforms. … these are the tools and technology and the unseen backbone of the organization that represent the new ways of work.”
Those tools, Vitale added, should have no limitations on where employees are located. They might include:
- Collaboration tools: Collaboration tools are essential in the digital workplace. “It’s hard to argue their value for any size organization using a hybrid or fully remote workplace model,” Sanders said.
- Communication platforms: Tools such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing and others allow for real-time communication despite physical location. However, cautioned Fenning, “Communication tools come and go as technology evolves.”
- Workflow management applications: How teams prefer to manage workloads can vary, said Sanders. “Some teams may lean toward the more methodical, to-do list type approach or need a visual board that can expand along with ideas and innovation.” One example of a to-do list type workflow management platform is shown below.
- Frameworks: The tools we desperately need in the digital workplace aren’t technology-based, said Fenning. “The tools we need are frameworks people can use to create and deliver clear messages.”
Reward Active Communication
There is no reward for employees who join community platforms, share knowledge and try to learn about coworkers in other parts of the company, said Vitale, but leaders can easily reward them by recognizing them with a thumbs up or reply on digital workspaces.
It’s easy, and it opens leaders up to vulnerability, something she said is a good thing. “Leaders are quickly learning that showing their vulnerable side, empathy and social intelligence goes much further in building trust with employees.”
That's because today's employees, comprised of Millennials and Gen Zers, are much more likely to speak up about topics like mental health and work-life balance compared to their Gen X and Boomer counterparts. This shift in the status quo at work also means a shift in how leaders shape the work environment.
Remember Less Is More
Is too much communication a thing? Absolutely. Especially when face-to-face conversations are out of the equation.
When it comes to virtual meetings specifically, around 25% of workers say they are worn out by the amount of time they spend on video calls.
Vitale recommends asking yourself: Does the organization really need all those emails, newsletters, intranet sites, meetings, brainstorms, etc.?
“If readership isn’t constant or growing… reduce, combine or remove the communications. Institute your metrics and analysis here. Use your communications governance to back up your decisions about reducing comms that may not be effective.”
Digital Workplace Communication Continues to Evolve
The workplace has seen a lot of disruption in recent years, and with it, the definition of "good communication" has evolved. It's no surprise that teams and managers alike are struggling to find new strategies and processes that work. And more changes might still arise.
“Digital workplace and digital employee experience are really integral to successful operations, human resource management, efficiency and employee satisfaction, and the technology and ideas are flowing thick and fast in this space,” said Sanders.
If the pace of change we’ve experienced since 2020 continues, she said, it’s exciting to think about how organizations might work in only another 10 years from now.
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