Communication breakdown in the workplace is one of the biggest challenges — and biggest stressors — for businesses and their employees. And it’s not just a problem for organisations with hundreds of people in their workforce.
In a Microsoft and YouGov report on growth in small businesses in the UK, 45% of workers said they’ve had to make decisions without having all of the information they need.
Added to this, poor communication with internal teams outranked all other workplace issues as a cause of stress, including organisational culture, lack of senior management support, and poor work-life balance. The cost of all this poor communication? About $62.4 million a year in lost productivity.
Big or small, every workplace is made up of a group of people from different backgrounds, each with their own sets of skills and preferred communication styles. Figuring out how to prevent communication breakdown in the workplace then starts with acknowledging these differences. It also requires an understanding of the consequences of communication barriers, such as lost productivity, lost trust, and erosion of the workplace culture.
So here’s the good news: communication breakdowns can be fixed. Whether you’re managing five people, fifty people, or five hundred people, finding and implementing communication solutions within your organisation is a great way to meet the needs of your team members and ensure that everyone gets the information they need to do their best work. In this article, we’ll go over why this is so essential — plus actionable steps you can take right now to address (and solve!) the causes of communication breakdown.
What is a communication breakdown?
Perhaps the best way to explain what a communication breakdown at work looks like — and why it’s so detrimental to both your company culture and its bottom line — is to illustrate it with some examples. If any of these sound familiar, chances are you’ve got some communication problems on hand.
Example 1: Sam, Sue, and Sid are working on a project together. A task needs to be done to further the project along, but each member of the team assumes somebody else is taking care of it. This assumption leads to a missed deadline, as well as finger pointing among the three members of the team over who dropped the ball.
Example 2: Sue has given Sam a task with broad directions. Assuming he has what he needs, Sam completes the task and provides it to Sue, who returns it with more detailed directions about what she wants. This back and forth happens multiple times, with Sue failing to clearly communicate what she needs and Sam failing to ask for clear and final directives. The result is a project that takes much longer than it should have, with both team members feeling annoyed that their needs weren’t met efficiently.
Example 3: A department team has a meeting and discusses specific actions that they want to take toward a certain objective. However, no roles are assigned, and the meeting ends without a plan for who and what is going to propel the actions forward. No progress is made toward the objective, and it’s either forgotten about or becomes a point of contention among the team members.
What these and other examples of communications breakdowns in an organisation have in common is that, in all instances, more clear and direct communication would have prevented the problem entirely. It wasn’t a lack of resources or time that led to the missed deadline, the inefficient workflow, or the uncompleted project — it was a breakdown of the communication structure, with assumptions overriding facts to the detriment of everyone involved.
How communication breakdowns happen
Failures of communication don’t necessarily mean that employees are bad at or ambivalent about their jobs. Instead, they usually come down to systemic issues in company policies and culture, or just simple misunderstandings that build up into something more.
So what are the most common reasons behind these crucial breakdowns? Here are some of the key culprits to be aware of:
- Lack of clearly defined communication standards
- Inefficient means of communication (i.e. using email when a quick phone call would have been more effective)
- Cultural and/or experiential differences in communication styles and preferences
- Mixed messages or a lack of clear directives
- Poor listening skills
- Over- or under-sharing
- Assumptions and unresolved miscommunications
- Failure to follow through or properly disperse communications
- Personal conflicts and negativity
What all of these causes of communication breakdown have in common is that they’re relatively easy to solve once they’re addressed. Yes, communicating about your company’s problems with communicating is key, and it’s crucial for finding solutions to communication breakdown in an organisation. As for what to do next, we’ve got some ideas.
How to avoid communication breakdown in business
When it comes to the operation of your business, it’s better not to assume. Instead of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, take real steps to curb and prevent communication problems between employees, and provide a blueprint that everyone can follow for more productive interactions. Here’s where to start.
1. Assess how people are currently communicating
Take a step back and see how communication takes place at your company. A personal communication audit can help clue you in to gaps and hurdles, and can also illuminate a path forward. Are important details getting buried in overly wordy emails? Do employees feel heard and understood? Figure out where you’re at first, and be sure to get input from everyone so you have the full picture.
2. Empower your teams with the right tools
The wrong tools can impede communication, while the right tools can empower it. Similarly, having too many platforms for communication — for example: email, Slack, and a project management platform for day-to-day discussions — can muddy the waters and make it difficult for the right message to get through. Stick with tools that are convenient and purposeful, and set clear expectations for where and how your employees should engage.
3. Make communication a core part of your company culture
Communication is a skill, so hire for it like you would any other. Look for people who share the communication style you’re trying to foster, and establish communication as critical at the onboarding stage. If you’re transparent about your goals, vision, challenges, and changes around communication, you’ll end up with people who recognise its importance within your culture.
4. Make sure all team leads are communicating the right messages
You don’t want to micro-manage every team and department in your company, but you should be setting out clear communication guidelines and expectations and making sure that team leaders follow through on them. The more clear you can be about what you want, the better your leads can go to work enforcing those best practices on the ground.
5. Clarify the chain of reporting
Everyone should know who they report to. While it seems obvious, a lot of communication breakdowns happen simply because there is no designated lead for a task. Assign one person to be in charge of overseeing progress and the flow of information for a project, and be sure that the rest of the team knows who they should be going to with issues or questions.
6. Remember that communication goes both ways
Everyone needs to feel comfortable with giving status updates, otherwise you’re risking missing out on need-to-know information. Open your door and your ears, whether that’s through setting up daily stand ups, regular manager/team one-on-ones, or any other practice that facilitates discussion and gives everyone a voice.
7. Speaking of meetings, make them purposeful
Meetings are important for communication, but they can backfire. Your team needs time to focus on work projects, so make sure you’re not sacrificing their uninterrupted time on non-productive meetings. Set an agenda for each meeting, stay on topic, and follow-up afterwards instead of taking for granted that everyone knows what they’re doing and is taking action on it.
Put communication first
Strong team communication leads to stronger output. There are very real benefits to promoting effective communication within your organisation, and very real consequences to failing to do so. Everything from productivity and efficiency to your company culture relies on clear and direct communication, as does the accuracy of the work produced. And at the end of the day, all of it circles back to your revenue.
It’s normal — and even expected — that your employees will be bringing their own communication styles to the table. So while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to communication that all companies can benefit from, there is certainly value in identifying the unique ways that communication does (and doesn’t) happen in your organisation, and from there taking steps to get everyone on the same page.
If you can master the art of communication within your organisation, you’ll put yourself at a key advantage over your industry competitors. Follow the steps above to put an end to communication breakdowns and improve the way your teams relate to and work together — there’s a lot to benefit from the effort, and a lot to lose from failing to do it.