Communication breakdown at desk

Experiencing a communication breakdown is common in our busy workplaces. It is also a major cause of frustration and wasted effort! A communication breakdown can sometimes be hard to spot, and might not show itself immediately.

Things might seem to be travelling along quite smoothly, until one day you find that a communication breakdown has resulted in wasted effort, missed opportunities or work that hasn’t been completed.

I’ve noticed that breakdowns in communication is often not intentional. Many times, it’s because people are simply not paying attention. They’re focusing on other more tangible aspects of work that they believe are more important.

However, when you have a communication breakdown it’s common to see significant disruption, frustration and a loss of motivation. As the leaders of our teams and workplaces, we play a huge part in making sure that communication is relevant, timely and effective.

In this post, I’ll look at some of the common causes of communication breakdown, and how you can try to avoid them in your team and workplace.

What Causes a Communication Breakdown?

There are many causes of communication breakdowns. Here are my top selections, as well as some ways that you can try to avoid them. If I’ve missed any, let me know in the comments below!

#1. Thinking That Communication = Sending a Message

One of the most common causes of communication breakdown that I see is that leaders assume that sending a message counts as communication.

For example, we might send an email and assume that people have read it. Or we may mention something important in a quick corridor conversation, and assume that the person we are communicating with has really absorbed your message.

Sending an emailThe problem here is that we are assuming that other people are tuned into our message, when they just might not be.

Email is a common culprit. Many people are busy, with overflowing inboxes. Sending another email feels like communication, but many people miss them. If your message is really important, maybe you need to come up with a better method.

It’s important to remember that communication has two parts:

  1. First, it’s about getting your message across, in whatever form is appropriate
  2. Second, communication is about ensuring that your audience has received and understood your message.

That’s why we need to get out of the mindset of just blasting messages out to your audience. If you just focus on sending the message, you’re only achieving half of the goal.

Learn More:  5 Communication Skills Every Leader Needs.

#2. Assuming People Communicate the Same Way You Do

Effective communication can be different for everyone.

Some people are happy receiving an email with the details of a change in their team, but others would like these changes communicated in a more personal manner.

Confused girlIt’s important that you don’t simply assume that your audience are the same as you when it comes to communication.

It may seem convenient to treat everyone in your team the same way, but this can often result in alienating certain team members who may have a different communication style.

It’s a similar concept as people having different learning styles. Some people like to see pictures and diagrams, others absorb messages better by reading text or hearing the words out loud.

“Treat others as you would like to be treated” doesn’t really cut it here. You need to treat others as they would like to be treated. In other words, you should try to communicate in a way that suits them.

Obviously you can’t please everybody all the time, but usually putting some conscious thought into how you communicate can be helpful.

Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #91: Think You Know What Your Team Wants? Think Again!

#3. Assuming People Already Know What You Want, and Understand What’s Going On

Workplaces can be extremely complex. Teams have diverse priorities, and there are many stakeholders sending messages and striving for attention.

Leaders are often “in the know” in the workplace, having greater access to the inner workings of the company. If something happens, leaders are usually the first to be briefed, so they can adjust priorities or cascade information to their teams.

Because of this privileged position, leaders sometimes assume that everyone else knows what they do. They will sometimes fail to communicate, assuming important information is already out there. Many teams who are left in the dark feel confused and frustrated.

Busy leaders also fall into the trap of assuming their teams know what they expect or need. This results in frustration and rework, when clear expectations haven’t been set from the beginning.

Many a leader has fallen foul of the trap where work has not been completed, because the team didn’t really know what was expected.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #37: Communication Mistakes That Will Damage Your Leadership.

#4. Communicating on a “Need to Know Basis”

Many leaders make assumptions about the information that their people would like to hear. In other words, they use their own discretion to choose what to communicate.

Sometimes, leaders keep information to themselves, because other people “don’t need to know”. Other times, they simply don’t consider that people might be interested in different aspects of the workplace.

After all, many people like to feel like part of the workplace community. They like to understand what is happening, even if they aren’t directly impacted or involved.

The fact is, employees like to understand what is happening in their workplaces. When leaders make assumptions about what they would like to hear about, communication may suffer.

#5. Issues Between Team Members or Stakeholders

Another common communication breakdown occurs when people just aren’t getting along. When you don’t really like speaking to someone, you’re less likely to communicate with them, right?

Team Dynamics - ConflictIn some cases, people will withhold or hoard information to give them a greater feeling of power and control. This can result in information silos where people only communicate with their close peers, rather than across different teams.

Leaders need to be able to spot these situations and try to resolve them, to keep the information flowing. If we don’t keep our eyes open to the dynamics within and around our teams, communication breakdowns can easily result.

No amount of process and structure around your communication will help if people are refusing to communicate effectively!

How to Resolve These Common Communication Breakdowns

There are a few good ways to try to avoid these communication breakdowns and to help the flow of information in your team and workplace. Try them out and see whether they can help you.

1. Understand the priority of your message

If your message is important, then consider using more personal, interactive methods of communication such as meetings or workshops. People often complain about “too many meetings”, but sometimes, it’s important to get people in the room together so you can be sure that everyone is on the same page.

Less important information may be best communicated by email or using the company intranet. The most important information should often be communicated via more personal means.

Communication can impact different people in different ways, so it’s important that you also consider whether a 1 to 1 meeting might be better than a larger forum.

If people are going to want to provide input, then interactive sessions are helpful. If feedback is not as important, then one-way channels like email or a web page might work just fine.

Communication trees and birds

2. Consider how your people like to communicate

Start to get a sense for how your team, colleagues or your manager likes to communicate. This might be as simple as asking them directly. Or, it could be a matter of trying different methods and seeing which ones work the best.

Tailoring your communication may seem time consuming. However, having to recover from a communication blunder can also waste a significant amount of time!

It’s important to test the knowledge of your team members and key stakeholders. What do they know? What would they like to know? How would they like to find out about it? How often do they want to be updated?

You won’t be able to satisfy everybody all the time, but tailoring your communication to suit the people around you can be extremely helpful for people to absorb your messages.

3. Communicate with intention

Instead of thinking about communication as something that happens alongside the real work, it can be helpful to think differently.

Communication is actually part of the work, not just an annoying overhead. Consider putting some structure and process around your communication.

Actions to help you create more intentional communication:

  • Creating consistent forums for communication at different levels. This might include large groups, small teams or individual conversations, and embedding communication as part of your working process. If you have a particular issue with communication in a certain area, you might create a special forum that meets regularly so you can be more confident that information is flowing.
  • Dedicating someone to communication activity. Communicating effectively is part of everybody’s role. However, it can be beneficial to have someone who is dedicated to structuring and planning communication if it’s important for your workplace.
  • Becoming more conscious of how we communicate. When leaders are conscious about how they communicate, there is less confusion, rework and frustration. Consider communication as part of your everyday workload, instead of just as an afterthought.
  • Asking your people about their communication needs. Simply asking the question can give you insights you may not have expected. What would you like to know? How would you like to learn about it? How often would you like this information?
  • Add context to your communication. Often it’s good to tell people why you are communicating information, and why you are doing it in a certain way. This helps people understand that you have thought about your messaging.

4. Resolve Behaviour Issues Quickly

When people aren’t communicating effectively, you need to sort it out, quickly. Lack of communication can build tension and frustration when people find out they have been kept out of the loop.

As usual, having a direct (and potentially difficult) conversation to tackle the issue is possibly your best bet. Going forward, you may have to involve yourself more in the work and interactions of the people involved, so you can be sure people are communicating.

You can also become more structured about roles and responsibilities, so people understand who does what. However, this only works when people are sticking to the plan, playing along and not going off track.

Maintaining appropriate oversight is key. The last thing that you want is to find out that certain people haven’t been communicating for months, resulting in rework or missed deadlines!

Communication breakdowns are common in workplaces, but they don’t need to be. All it takes is a little more intention and focus.

Leaders are at the centre of communication and have a large role to play. If you can tackle communication in a more intentional and structured way, there is no reason why you can’t have a more engaged team and workplace.

Is your workplace suffering from a communication breakdown? How have you overcome them? Let me and all the other Thoughtful Leaders know in the comments below!