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Fixing workplace communication problems
Illustration by Elliot Mah

6 min read

Fixing workplace communication problems

Poor communication skills and workplace miscommunication can severely impact your organization. Learn how you can fix both.

Poor communication skills can lead to miscommunication in the workplace—and that can lead to trouble for your organization. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s recent study and report, Communication barriers in the modern workplace, brought to light some of the communication issues today’s workplaces face and just how adverse their effect can be. The most significant consequences cited by study participants were stress (52%) and delayed or uncompleted projects (44%).

Fortunately, something can be done about this. Here, we’ll touch upon findings in the EIU’s report as we explore some of the more common culprits of communication in the workplace and what you can do to combat and correct them.

Different strokes for different folks

In the EIU report, different communication styles was cited among the participants as the biggest cause of communication issues (42%), and it’s easy to see why. In addition to our own personal style, we all have our own preferred methods of communicating—phone calls, email, instant messaging, in-person—but the way in which they function is so different that we need to be aware of how we approach each method. From the report (credited to author Susan Cain):

...because we aren’t always mindful of the mode of communication we use, people are often left unclear about responsibilities or unable to contribute meaningfully to the discussion

 

Likewise, we need to be open to adjusting to other methods if we want to cross the generational divide. The EIU report showed a distinct difference in the communication styles of millenials vs generation X-ers vs baby boomers, and iterated the importance for people to stretch beyond their communication comfort zone, so as to not alienate one another.

In the report, Art Markman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is cited as stating that the younger generation should “master the ability to communicate clearly in person so that they can reach these older generations” while the older generation should be willing to “embrace the new communication tools on which developing leaders will continue to rely”.  

Ideally that’s how a common middle ground can be found. And you can start by making sure that when you’re using a certain communication method you’re doing it because it’s the best medium for the message and the audience, not just because it’s the best for you.

Too little/too much

Vague. Confusing. Open to interpretation. These are just a few of the ways to describe communication that falls under the “too little/too much” umbrella. Some people use a short, abbreviated delivery style and think they’re being efficient and to-the-point. But others may describe their style as lacking or unhelpful. On the other end of the spectrum is the person who thinks a message conveyed with an excess of grandiose verbiage is going to be met with cheers of respect and admiration. More likely it will be met with looks of confusion and excessive eye-rolling. Neither are good ways to get a message across.

To illustrate, say you’ve prepared a quarterly summary report that will be handed out at an upcoming meeting, and you’ve printed up drafts for three of your superiors so they can provide you with any last-minute feedback before you send the final copy to print. Here’s what you get back:

Superior #1

“User #'s?” (written on a post-it stuck to last page of your draft)

Superior #2

“To be systematically on-target, the scope should encompass the varying measures of device usership across the generational divisions “ (written directly on the back page of your draft)

So far, not so good. That is, if you even managed to locate these misplaced missives. But then the clouds part and the sun shines through with:

Superior #3

“Nice work - but you should also include the data on the number of users in each age group" (written note, paper clipped to title page)

In other words, don’t risk understanding by aiming for brevity and don’t hide your message beneath what you feel are impressive flourishes of prose. Just be considerate, clear, and concise.

Muddled messages, jargon, and WTH?

If you communicate in a way that leaves what you say open to interpretation, or vague enough that it can be taken more than one way or is just straight-up puzzling, please stop. Receiving a message from you shouldn't send your recipients spiraling into a stress-filled Choose Your Own Adventure scenario, one that comes with real-life consequences:

You get to your desk and see a note attached to a copy of an upcoming presentation you gave to your supervisor to review. You read the note:

“Good. Data: fine in bar charts - line graphs pull more focus. Numbers are sick!”

If you think he likes your choice to use bar charts because line graphs would’ve pulled too much focus, do nothing to your presentation.

If you think that he means line graphs would be a better choice because they’ll pull more focus to the data, then reformat the charts in your presentation.

If you think your supervisor’s use of “sick” as a positive descriptor is concerning, you’re right.

And if you’re someone who has developed a kind of written shorthand with the people on your team or in your department, you should always take a moment to consider that what’s obvious to you may look like something that requires an encryption key to others. Because if you message Darlene at Reception with:

HU, I'm WFH on the app MVP specs

She may not realize that you’re simply letting her know: Heads up, I’m working from home on the specifications for the minimum viable product of our new app and instead may come to the not-so-logical conclusion that you mean: Hey you, I’m waiting for help on the application of Most Valuable Player glasses. And Darlene is generally at a loss for how to reply to such statements.

Both of these examples indicate times where you need to become your own proofreading wingman. Before sending any such missives, give them a quick “ambiguity check” and clear up anything that’s not easily understood. Something as simple as a few extra words (“Data: fine in bar charts - better to use line graphs to pull more focus”) can mean the difference between a team project that hits the bullseye or one that misses the target completely (and causes undue stress for team members). And as highlighted in the EIU report, this can lead to even more problems:

Unclear instructions from superiors, pointless meetings and other stressors can snowball into larger issues with widespread impacts on the business.

 

Tool time

Just like using actual hardware tools, you need to know which communication tools are the best for what job, which ones can be paired together to make your work easier, and the problems that can happen when you keep switching tools to get the job done. You know not to try digging a hole with a rake or not to use an axe to trim lumber for a fence, so practice the same reasoning with your communication tools.

Lack of tool knowledge can cause a lot of miscommunication issues, from emails sent to the wrong people to non-delivered notifications to mysterious missing attachments. Over 60% of the participants in the EIU study believe firm wide training would significantly improve overall communication in their workplace, and the report concurs that “being aware of communication differences and the best applications of various tools, the workforce can...communicate more effectively”.

This doesn’t mean that the whole organization has to sign-up for an all-day app training session. Even something as simple as a cheat sheet that shows what method works best for which content can empower the uneducated, inspire the confused, and show that there’s a way to navigate the communication tool maze of today.

Conclusion

Poor communication does a great job at laying the tracks for the miscommunication express to barrel through your workplace. But recognizing these communication shortcomings and resolving to do something about them can be your first step towards improving poor communication skills and derailing workplace miscommunication for good.

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Read more by
Vince Forrington

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