Poor communication in the workplace can happen at any and every level. Regardless of whether it involves top brass or a brand-new hire, the result is often an undesirable mess.
But what does poor communication look like? Many people might explain it differently, yet we typically recognize it when we see it. In order to improve communication, it’s necessary to understand what poor communication skills look like and their negative impact on the workplace.
Examples of communication issues
#1 Silence is not golden
Robert receives a copy of his annual performance review and quickly becomes confused. Under “maintains good relationships with clients,” he receives only a 3 out of 5 and no explanation for the rating. Robert prides himself on his ability to establish rapport with all customers, so the ranking stings. He goes in to talk to his boss. Jim states that Robert does not regularly make calls to customers to just “shoot the breeze,” which might result in more purchases. Robert fires back that nobody ever instructed him to do that, and Jim claims it should have been obvious given his role. Robert leaves with low morale — why didn’t anyone provide notification of this specific problem earlier?
Give feedback frequently
Want to make an immediate difference in office life? Put a premium on feedback. When it comes to clear communication, silence is not golden — it is confusing. Telling employees exactly what they are doing right promotes the continuation of desirable actions, and informing them what needs improvement leads to better performance. Also, make giving feedback a regular occurrence. The year-end review should not have been the first time Jim alerted Robert to the problem. An in-person chat when Jim first noticed the issue could have conveyed the expectation to Robert, making him a more effective employee and eliminating the tense confrontation later.
While on the subject of feedback, remember also to value it in the other direction — employees providing comments and suggestions. Good leaders maintain open, diverse communication channels. Giving workers a voice leads to better employee engagement, greater job satisfaction, and improved retention rates. Through active listening, management understands what people think and feel before it is too late and they go elsewhere. Be certain to respond to the feedback employees present, as lack of acknowledgment makes them assume you don’t really care.
#2 Organization is key, especially when workers need to adapt quickly
An important client calls to say he needs to move tomorrow’s meeting to today. The timing is tight, but staff members juggle their schedules to accommodate. A few minutes into the gathering, the customer inquires as to the whereabouts of Anthony — a member of the team he has known for a long time. Co-workers exchange horrified glances. In the chaos, nobody notified Anthony — a hybrid worker telecommuting today. They quickly get a frazzled, unprepared, and not happy Anthony in on a phone call.
Ensure employees know how to get in touch with one another
Modern arrangements such as remote work require particularly effective communication. Team members must have fast, easy access to each other’s location and schedule at all times. Also, workplaces need to develop consistent team communication strategies for disseminating information to off-site staff.
As the example illustrates, a lack of communication results in repercussions. The organization comes off to the client as disorganized, which may affect trust and future relations. Without time to prepare, the forgotten remote worker cannot bring his best self to the meeting, which is not good for business nor for his reputation. Likely, Anthony leaves this experience feeling like a second-class citizen and may question how much the company values his contributions.
#3 Don’t leave new employees in limbo
It surprises Lisa when she joins XYZ Ltd. that formal onboarding basically consists of filling out tax forms and choosing a medical insurance plan. Leaders at the small business reason that new hires will pick up company culture naturally in the tight-knit work environment. Lisa does ask her new colleagues many questions. While they are generally nice about answering, she feels somewhat like a pest. She turns red, however, when a teammate points out that the open-toed shoes she wears are unacceptable.
Onboarding goes beyond a new hire packet
Good communication plays a critical role in retention rates. New employees want to understand the norms and expectations of workplace culture. An assigned mentor could have eased Lisa’s entry into XYZ.
Note, too, the importance of an employee handbook to workplace communication. Employees new and old benefit from a clear, concise point of common reference. Lisa could have been spared embarrassment if she had been informed of the dress code. Likewise, the document can solve other potential instances of miscommunication, from how to properly give notice when you need to take a sick day to how the company alerts employees to office closure due to inclement weather.
#4 Vague instructions create room for misunderstanding
Their manager instructs Monica and Jackie to create a new window display by the end of the workday. He utters vague directions about making something that’s fun and attention-getting before heading back to his office and closing the door. The ladies each possess ideas on what to do but soon find themselves at odds. They consider seeking input from their boss but do not get the sense that he would welcome a disturbance. They decide to each do a section their own way. Jackie rolls her eyes upon viewing Monica’s part, and the latter storms off in tears. When the manager sees the display, he criticizes both of them for not following his “very clear communication.”
Clarity is in the eye of the beholder
This scenario contains communication problems on so many levels! For starters, good leaders don’t throw things at employees and leave. They allow ample time to thoroughly explain their vision, answer questions, clarify who is responsible for what, and encourage staff members to always check in if issues arise. Second, this manager exhibits what experts often use as the definition of poor communication — a disconnect between what is said and what is understood. People may feel very clear about what they think in their own head, but good communication involves adapting to the audience’s perspective. Third, miscommunication leads to productivity issues. The women wasted their time, and the display is not complete.
Poor communication has downstream consequences
But perhaps the worst consequence of this ineffective communication is how it brought about workplace conflict. Miscommunication harms teamwork both at present and going forward. Likewise, people do not like confusion, and it damages employee morale. Checklists, project management software, and other communication tools help everyone involved know their individual responsibilities. Fewer toes get stepped on.
It bears mentioning that Jackie and Monica probably could have improved the situation by exhibiting greater emotional intelligence. Skills such as empathy, “reading the room,” diffusing tension, and awareness of body language help people communicate better. Smart companies prioritize emotional intelligence and work on developing it.
#5 Employees have eyes and ears
Employees at ABC Enterprises get wind that something significant is going on at the company, even though management did not say a word. A group of strangers walked around the floor yesterday, with one of them jotting notes on a clipboard. Thelma, an executive secretary, tells several people that her boss canceled a client meeting yesterday in order to go out to lunch with these people. Before you know it, everyone has a theory. By day’s end, half the staff is looking at job postings because they are sure a merger is coming and they’ll be bumped out.
More transparency heads off rumors
Nothing gets the rumor mill churning faster than failure to provide information. Without actual facts to go on, workers fill in the gaps as they see fit. Not only does this waste work time and slow productivity, but it also creates stress and low morale.
Smart companies aim for transparency and trust. They provide as much information as possible at a given time. Managers answer questions honestly, including saying “I don’t know” when necessary. Avoiding tough issues or outright lying angers employees, leads them to expect the worst, and sets up an oppositional relationship.
#6 4pm… which time?
Max turns in the Anderson report two hours later than his manager Ralph wanted. The original email stated a deadline of 4:00 pm. Max, who works in the California office, assumed that meant 4:00 his time. Ralph, who operates out of Chicago, desired it at 4:00 his time. When he did not get the document on time, Ralph inquired via email. Busy adding a few last-minute figures, Max passed over the message in his box since it lacked a subject line and did not seem urgent. Max later reads it and worries about being in trouble. He composes a long reply explaining his side of the story and experiences trouble sleeping that night.
It’s about the little details
The difference between poor communication and good communication often rests on the “little” things. The problem never would have come up if Ralph had included a time zone in his original message or if Max would have double-checked what his boss meant when he wrote 4:00. Instead, miscommunication leads to delays, wastes time, and causes stress.
Pick the right channel for the job
People also need to think when choosing a communication method. Given the urgency of the situation, Ralph should have picked up the phone to communicate with his tardy employee rather than send an email (especially one not properly labeled as important in the subject line). Similarly, the nature of some conversations — such as ones on a sensitive subject or that generate intense feelings — benefit from face-to-face interaction to better gauge body language, tone, and understanding. Max and Ralph would benefit from a next-day video chat to discuss what happened and clear the air!