4 Red Flags for Workplace Communication Problems (and What To Do About Them)

Dana Youngren
Dana Youngren
6 mins
meeting with workplace communication problems

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.

4 Sure Signs of Poor Workplace Communication

1. Turnover Is High

You may be capable of attracting top talent to your company, but with a toxic and high-stress environment caused by poor workplace communication, you’re less likely to be able to keep them. And unfortunately, high turnover isn’t cheap. Studies show that every time a company has to replace a salaried employee, it costs the company six to nine months of that employee’s salary. Replacing high-level employees and executives can double that number. 

2. Work Is Duplicated 

Time is money. When an employee completes a project that has already been completed by one or multiple employees in the past, they’re losing time that they could have spent contributing innovative and new work to push your company past your competitors. Instead, you’re left with a final product you don’t need and another document in your database or inbox. 

3. Finished Products Just Aren’t Cutting It

Have you ever ordered a meal at a drive-through window, giddy with the thought of biting into that juicy hamburger you’ve dreamt about all day, only to find that when you finally got home, it was doused in that mayonnaise that you specifically requested be excluded? It’s a real bummer. When project instructions and expectations are poorly delivered or recipients of instructions fail to ask clarifying questions, you end up with a (metaphorical) mayonnaise-slathered hamburger you can’t eat, but still had to pay for. 

4. Information Is Limited to Certain Teams or Individuals

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 how to ask when you 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.

5 Causes of Workplace Communication Problems

We’ve looked at some of the most common signs of workplace communication problems, but what are the root causes? Here are five sources you may need to address if your workforce is suffering from poor communication.

1. Projects Rely on Assumptions

When employees make assumptions about the parameters of a project, who will complete each step of the project, the review process, and more, work tends to fall short and confusion takes over. More often than not, when employees are forced to make assumptions, it’s an indication of poor project management communication from the top down. 

2. One-Way Communication

Although some level of authority is absolutely necessary, the relationship between employee and manager should be a collaborative one. When the relationship between your organization’s managers and employees more closely resembles that of an authoritarian dictator and a humble servant, it may be time to re-evaluate. 

3. Exclusively Negative Feedback

You know the old trick, sandwich a critique between two affirmations? Well, it works. 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. 

4. Undefined Responsibilities 

Employees wear many hats. Employees should be flexible, willing to step outside their comfort zone, and willing to lend a helping hand, even when a project doesn’t necessarily fall under their job description. However, when employees lack a clear understanding of their defined responsibilities, both ongoing and project by project, responsibilities go uncovered, costing your company time and money. 

5. Lack of Privacy and Anonymity

We all know workplace privacy is hard to come by. Managers can read emails and Slack messages, conference room doors aren’t as soundproof as we might think, and the watercooler is no place for private gossip. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. However, if leaders aren’t providing their employees with a positive and productive outlet for constructive criticism, resentment will start to build, contributing to lack of employee engagement and a toxic workplace culture. 

How Do You Fix Workplace Communication Problems? 

Now that we’ve diagnosed the signs and causes of poor workplace communication, it’s time to dig into some actionable solutions.

1. Adopt an Open Door Policy (But Be Strategic About It)

First and foremost, if you claim to have an open-door policy, prove it. Literally and figuratively keep your door open. However, be aware that an open door policy with no parameters around it can lead to dozens of disruptions throughout your day. There’s also a risk that some employees will start to become too dependent on you to answer questions or resolve problems if they can drop by your office at any time.

HR services company Insperity recommends clearly communicating the guidelines around your open door policy. For example, you might have certain hours of the day where the door is open and employees are welcome to drop in, but you may also have designated hours when your door is closed so that you can focus on work. Insperity also suggests asking employees to be ready to answer these questions before they come to you:

  • Does this issue affect just you, your team, or another department?
  • What are 2-3 potential solutions to the problem?

By asking employees to reflect on these questions before they burst into your office, you can help prevent your open door policy from being abused.

2. Be a Good Listener

So your employees use your open-door policy. Now what? 

Talking is only half (maybe even less) of being an excellent communicator, workplace and otherwise. One way to make others feel heard is to mirror emotions and body language. If an employee is excited to share a new idea with you, show excitement as they divulge their million-dollar idea. If an employee is upset, show them you understand the seriousness of their feelings with appropriate facial expressions and eye contact. We hope this goes without saying, but do not even think about touching your phone while another person is speaking to you. Summarize what your employee is saying to you. By taking a moment to recap what you hear, you’re showing your employees that it’s important to you that you understand what they’re saying.  

3. Invest in Technology to Democratize Information

One of the main culprits of duplicated work, unclear project instructions, and forgetfulness in the workplace is poor communication. And who can be surprised when the go-to strategy for managing projects is to operate out of crowded email inboxes or to store documents and information about the projects across dozens of different platforms? 

Email, chat platforms like Slack, and project management platforms play an important role in workplace communication, but when you need to share information with an entire team of company—and keep it from becoming buried in someone’s inbox or Slack thread—a knowledge sharing platform can help. A knowledge sharing platform gives your employees one central place to go for all information so that they can search for work that has already been completed, review company goals, and ask questions of subject matter experts across the company. 

4. Create a Space for Safely Sharing Ideas

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.

One way to overcome the perceived risk of speaking up is to give employees an outlet for providing anonymous feedback, even if it’s something as low-tech as a suggestion box or a bulletin board to pin notecards on. 

If a suggestion box feels too passive, try moving away from the anonymous sharing model 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 challenged called the “Innovation Lab,” where employees were challenged 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.

5. Use Team Building and Offsite Retreats 

When all you ever talk about is work, it may be hard for employees to feel comfortable sharing information or creative ideas. The term “ice-breaker” may receive a few eye-rolls from some of you, but team-building exercises and games are a way for you to get to know the people you spend 8+ hours a day with on a more personal level. Every quarter, break into teams and try a new get-to-know-you game or team building exercise. Try hosting an offsite retreat for your team or company. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Even a bowling alley is known to break down social barriers and get employees communicating and building relationships. 

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 the opportunity to 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 them, listens to them, and respects them. 

August 14, 2019

Harness The Power Of Knowledge Sharing With Digital Transformation

Companies that grasp what the digital workplace is really all about are willing to change the ways people and applications connect across their organizations. By fostering a digitally driven culture of collaboration, they break down silos, share knowledge more effectively and compete more successfully.

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