In any relationship, poor communication can spell disaster. In the workplace, poor communication can cost you financially. Employees who lack the proper avenues for healthy workplace communication end up feeling undervalued, unengaged, and unlikely to go above and beyond to be an innovator within your company. There are several tell-tale symptoms of a company with a case of poor communication, and thankfully, there is a cure.
Communication barriers come in many forms, but at their core, they boil down to obstacles in sharing or receiving information. For example, communication barriers may include:
- Lack of in-person interaction between remote team members
- Team members working on different schedules and across different time zones
- Different team members relying on or preferring different platforms for communication
- Team members being unsure where to look for documented information
- Differences in language or workplace jargon
For many organizations, communication barriers have become more pronounced since their workforces shifted to remote work as a result of the covid pandemic. And with more than half of knowledge workers saying they want to continue working remotely post-pandemic, these barriers aren’t going away. However, leading businesses are addressing these challenges head on to ensure employees can communicate effectively no matter where they’re working.
Strategies to Overcome Communication Barriers
Video conferencing solutions like Zoom have already emerged as valuable tools to help team members communicate face-to-face even when they can’t be in the same room. But when employees start experiencing Zoom fatigue or have to communicate while working on different schedules, it’s also important for organizations to provide tools for asynchronous collaboration. For instance, you could allow team members to record and share videos of their project updates when real-time input isn’t necessary, or subject matter experts could document answers to questions they are frequently asked and share them in the company’s knowledge management platform.
When it comes to communication problems caused by team members relying on different communication channels—or not knowing where to look for documented information—you can help by clearly documenting how different channels should be used. You can also help minimize confusion related to terminology and jargon by creating a glossary of common terms used in the workplace and industry. Choosing a knowledge management platform that supports synonym searching (that is, search results will factor in common synonyms as well as exact match keywords) will also help employees find information even if they don’t know the exact terms the author used.
It may feel like there are certain people who are “gatekeepers of information” within your company. Employees may find themselves going to the same person over and over again with questions, or they may not even know who to ask when they need information to move forward with a project. And when people leave the company, you may have the unpleasant realization that they’re taking a lot of institutional knowledge with them.
People don’t necessarily hoard knowledge on purpose. In many cases, they may not think to document what they know—or they may feel like they don’t have enough time for documentation. But whatever the cause of the information hoarding, it can lead to signification collaboration and communication problems.
Strategies to Overcome Information Hoarding
One of the best ways to get people to share what they know is to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. For instance, you could create templates for subject matter experts to fill out or give SMEs the option to share knowledge in the format that makes the most sense to them (e.g., through a video, slide deck, or written document).
It’s also important to make sure employees understand what’s in it for them when they share their knowledge. In some cases, the benefit might be long-term time savings: if a subject matter expert documents the answer to a question they regularly get asked, then they won’t have to keep answering that question over and over again. You might also offer some external incentives—such as shout-outs or quarterly prizes for the top content contributors—to help get employees in the habit of sharing their knowledge.
Assumptions and Misinterpretations
Misunderstandings in the workplace often occur when employees assume that their peers are approaching a problem or project the same way that they would, based on their personal frame of reference. When employees make assumptions about the parameters of a project, who will complete each step of the project, how it will be completed, the review process, and more, work tends to fall short and confusion takes over. More often than not, when employees make assumptions, it’s an indication of poor project management communication from the top down.
Strategies to Overcome Assumptions
As a department or team leader, you can demonstrate clear communication to ensure assumptions don’t derail collaborative efforts. In meetings with action items, repeat those action items before attendees leave, and make sure everyone understands their responsibilities and next steps. When someone else shares an idea with you, paraphrase it back to them and ask if you are understanding it correctly. Ask questions to prompt clarification when necessary. Schedule regular status updates, and air on the side of over communicating.
Lack of Feedback
Employees should never feel like they’re in the dark about how they’re doing at their job. They also shouldn’t have to wait for their annual performance review to get feedback. If employees get infrequent feedback—or no feedback at all—then they’re more likely to miss the mark and grow increasingly frustrated. This can lead to increased turnover in your workplace. That doesn’t come cheap, considering it costs six to nine months of an employee’s salary to replace them.
Strategies to Improve Feedback
As a manager, make sure you’re regularly meeting with your direct reports and sharing feedback in a timely manner. Be sure to share both positive and negative feedback. Managers with poor communication skills often fail to acknowledge and congratulate employees when they exceed expectations but are the first to criticize them when they don’t. Focusing on the negative will lead top-performing employees to feel unvalued by their company, and to seek employment with a company who will.
When you do need to share negative feedback, make sure it’s constructive: get specific about what needs to improve, and don’t criticize things that are outside the employee’s control. Start a two-way conversation with your team member, and give them the opportunity to respond and ask questions.
Lack of Psychological Safety
Not every employee is comfortable voicing concerns or sharing their ideas publicly. In fact, a series of interviews with over 200 tech workers revealed that almost half the workers chose to hold back information that could be beneficial to their company. The researchers who conducted this interview stated that a common reason the workers chose to hold back information was because the risk of speaking up felt personal and immediate, while the possible benefits of sharing the information were unknown.
To build a workplace culture in which employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and knowledge, you need to establish psychological safety: that is, a sense that people can openly contribute and feel that their ideas are being evaluated without the risk of negative repercussions.
Strategies to Improve Psychological Safety
Start improving psychological safety by demonstrating to employees that there’s no fallout to sharing their ideas—and that the rewards for sharing good ideas are great. This requires support from the top down. In an article for Fast Company, digital strategist Lawrence Scotland described how his organization launched a company-wide challenge called the “Innovation Lab,” where employees were invited to develop an idea with their team and present it to a panel of senior executives. The executives provided feedback, and the best ones received the buy-in the teams needed to execute on their ideas.
There are plenty of small, ongoing things you can do to promote psychological safety as well. For example, allow a few minutes at the beginning of meetings for team members to make small talk and get to know one another better. This will help build trust so that people feel more comfortable communicating with one another. You could also demonstrate the positives of sharing knowledge by posting your own learnings from a recent project in your knowledge management platform and encouraging team members to share feedback and additional learnings in the comments.
Strong communication isn’t easy. Fostering authentic relationships takes time, effort, and transparency. But in the end, it’s worth it. Open communication helps employees feel more satisfied in their work, feel comfortable collaborating with others on innovative ideas, and cultivate new skills that support company goals.
Follow the tips above to help your employees build healthy relationships with each other and with you, and watch them excel as they work for a company that values, listens to, and respects them.
Note: This blog post was originally published on April 14, 2019. It was expanded and updated with new information in November 2021.