Where Workplace Communication Breaks Down and What Leaders Can Do About It

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How managers can foster open communication that drives business results

By Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of Honey

Good workplace communication is critical for a business to become and stay successful. A recent study by The Economist Intelligence Unit indicates that poor communication isn’t just a nuisance — it can be the culprit behind failed projects, low morale, missed performance goals, and even lost sales.

For employees, a culture of good communication makes time spent at work more productive and fulfilling. This, in turn, helps you attract, engage, and keep high-caliber talent. Good communication builds trust and stronger teamwork. And it also builds a stronger corporate culture and identity, which can trickle right down to the quality of products and customer experiences.

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There are two ways in which communication usually breaks down at work: 1) when people have something to say but remain silent; and 2) when people misunderstand each other. Both carry important implications for your workplace.

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Communication breaks down when people remain silent.

Speaking up and speaking out is important. Whether it’s to point out a flaw in a plan or share ideas on how to do something better, employee input helps businesses move ahead. But not all employees feel empowered to do so.

Researchers at Cornell University studied communication patterns at several financial services firms. They found significantly better financial and operational results in business units with employees who reported speaking up more.

But despite organizations’ best efforts to encourage a free exchange of ideas, employees continue to keep their thoughts to themselves. Research by Fierce Conversations and Quantum Workplace shows that that about half of the workforce holds back from speaking their minds regularly at work.

Why is that? Business professors and researchers James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris found two primary reasons: fear of consequences and a sense of futility.

Most people don’t feel safe to speak up at work.

Sharing your thoughts (especially those that may not be met with enthusiasm) can be fearful for an employee. The perceived consequences can outweigh the benefits.

Speaking up against a decision or bringing attention to a problem is difficult enough in itself. It’s easy to see why an employee might choose to hold back if they think it could also kill their chances of a promotion or paint them in a negative light.

Read more: Workplace Communication Quotes: Lessons from Today’s Top HR and Internal Comms Leaders

Employee motivation leans toward what Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, calls in her Tedx Talk “impression management.” We all care what others think of us at work. People are motivated to keep questions to themselves for fear of looking ignorant. They don’t want to admit weaknesses or mistakes because they could look incompetent. If they offer ideas, they could appear intrusive. And challenging the status quo may make them appear negative.

As Edmondson asks: who wants to be perceived as ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative at work? But it turns out this isn’t the only reason your employees don't speak up.

They also feel their opinions don’t matter.

Only 30% of U.S. employees feel that their opinions at work matter, according to Research by Gallup.

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For business leaders, it’s worth listening. Gallup's research shows that if you can increase the proportion of people who feel like their opinion counts to 60%, you'll see a significant impact. At this level, you can expect to increase productivity by 12% and reduce turnover and safety incidents by 27% and 40%, respectively.

The Cornell researchers who found that vocal employees correlated to better business performance figured out that it’s not enough that workers just speak up, though. It’s who they speak up to that matters. It was only when workers spoke up to a leader that performance increased — presumably because that leader could take action.

How to build a culture that helps people speak up.

Building a culture that helps people speak up is important for better workplace communication. Companies have known this for years now, and a wide variety of tools and knowledge areas have cropped up to support it. See below for ways you can help foster a workplace environment that gives your people a voice.

Use technology, but evaluate new tools carefully.

Tap into today’s communication tools to help give a voice to your employees, no matter where they work. Toronto-based tech company Leonardo used a Honey intranet to break down communication silos between teams that historically had challenges communicating. They found this drastically reduced the number of internal emails and led to an increase in company morale.

Fortune reports on a Denver-based company called DaVita that recognized it needed to build a culture of employee feedback. The company saw success with a two-step plan. DaVita’s executives first let people know that feedback was important to them, and then they implemented a series of in-person and technology tools. These tools spurred regular interaction between company leaders and employees.

But, as DaVita noted, careful consideration of tools is important. DaVita used anonymous surveys, for instance, but they also called out the dangers of this approach with the wrong tool. Approached in the wrong way, anonymous feedback tools can serve to further keep people quiet, reinforcing that it’s not safe to speak your mind. And in order to provide enough details to actually have an effect, the employee usually has to give information that would make it clear who they are anyway.

As one executive from DaVita points out, more important than the tools themselves is “the engagement of the leaders and willingness to use the outcomes of the tools.”

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Read more: The Impact of Technology on Communication

Create a psychologically safe environment.

Accept that your staff will fail and make mistakes. Signal that you’re okay with that, to help create a psychologically safe environment for your team. When your workers feel safe to try and fail, you’ll see engagement skyrocket. That’s when your organization will tap into innovation that otherwise remains locked inside of your staff. So leave it up to employees to determine how to solve problems and do their work.

Don’t underestimate the power of trust. Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, calls trust “the most essential ingredient in effective communication.” You can start by being candid with others. As Laszlo Bock, the leader behind Google's reputation as a great employer, points out, “If you believe people are fundamentally good and worthy of trust, you must be honest and transparent with them.”

Read more: Four Vital Workplace Communication Skills Managers Can Learn From Google's Laszlo Bock

Give feedback clearly and regularly.

Make feedback on performance a part of daily conversations with your team. This can help to “normalize” it. Leaders find it just as difficult to deliver negative feedback as employees do to receive it. One study found that 37% of managers in the U.S. feel uncomfortable having to give direct feedback or criticism when they think the other person will respond badly to it. But if we are to gain each other’s trust, we should not hesitate to have those conversations. By normalizing discussions on performance, you can help reinforce priorities and show the other person that they are important to you. Be respectful but speak directly and don’t skirt around issues. Your example sets the tone for how your team will communicate with you.

Reach out personally, and often.

Don’t wait for others to approach you. If you’re a manager, go beyond telling people your door is open if you want to encourage open communication in the organization. Spend time among the people you wish to hear more from. Commit to regular one-on-one meetings and actively seek out their opinions.

Show your appreciation when people share ideas. Recognize the risk and effort that someone invests when they speak up. Resist the urge to become defensive, because how you react sets the tone for the next interaction. When you follow a knee-jerk reaction and shoot down others’ ideas, you’re not only discouraging their future participation, but also that of others who witness it. These seemingly small interactions are what make up your workplace culture.

Take action — and let your team know what you did.

To avoid making your staff feel like “why bother?”, you must close the loop and relay that you’ve taken action. This reinforces to the other person that you take their views seriously. People are reluctant to share their views when they feel their manager is unlikely to act on them. If there is no plan to use information gathered, the effort of communication is wasted.

Give special attention to communicating change. Change is difficult and people will resist. You need them to buy in to ensure that changes move ahead successfully. Khadim Batti, CEO & co-founder at Whatfix recommends making sure the right person is introducing the change (someone they like and trust) and that you’re prepared for resistance. When introducing a change, you want your people to speak up to the leader, not grumble to one another.

Communication breaks down when people don’t feel free to speak their minds at work. But miscommunication can also spell disaster.

Communication also breaks down when people misunderstand each other.

Miscommunication is the second most common way communication fails. And what does it look like? According to the study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, different communication styles, unclear responsibilities, and time pressures are the three most frequently cited causes of poor communication.

Workplace miscommunication can also arise from our diverse mix of backgrounds, beliefs, and values. Add to that the distractions from constant interruptions, and it’s easy to see where things can go wrong.

During an exchange — whether in person or online — you alternate between being the speaker and listener. But too often we forget to listen properly and find ourselves thinking of what we’re going to say next. And as a speaker, we might move ahead too fast without giving enough context. Blunders like these can cause two people to come away from an exchange with different understandings.

Read more: The 4 Types of Communication Styles in Workplace Messaging

The study of financial services firms by Cornell found that quality of communication — the conversations that employees hold with their managers and co-workers — is directly related to employee engagement. Researchers said, “The more that workers perceived their conversations with co-workers or managers to be of high quality, the more engaged they were at work. Employees who rated their conversations with co-workers poorly had a particularly low level of employee engagement.”

With today’s fast-paced comms and more people working remotely, organizations have their work cut out for them.

How to sidestep miscommunication.

As an experienced business leader, you may already have workplace communication best practices ingrained in how you operate. But many people are still learning the ropes. Watch for opportunities to polish your communication skills and model them for your employees.

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When you’re the speaker, focus on helping the listener. This applies whether your exchange is taking place face-to-face or in a text-based channel like Slack.

Keep it simple.

Decide on your goal before you reach out to someone. What do you want them to understand or do? This will help you keep the call or message thread focused. Then strip your message down to its essence, removing unnecessary words to reduce the chance of confusion. Use short sentences and simple words.

Don’t speak for more than a few minutes (or type more than a few paragraphs) without making sure the other person is following you. Ask for confirmation that the other person understood what you said. Try “What did you get from that?” or “How do you feel about that?”

International management consultant and executive coach Maya Hu-Chan recommends emphasizing key words to help get the point across. You can do this by slowing down for (or bolding) words that are critical for the other person to catch.

Use signposts to guide the conversation.

Hu-Chan also mentions “signposting.” Signposts are phrases that help the other person understand where you are in the discussion. About to switch topics? Dig deeper into a point? Or circle back to something already discussed? Phrases like these will help the listener follow you when you switch gears:

“I’d like to dig into that more.”

“Now, let’s talk about X.”

“To recap, here’s what we decided.”

Connect with the other person.

Be mindful of how the other person prefers to communicate as you guide a conversation. While it might feel contrived at first to change up our communication style with different people, making the effort can go a long way. If you tend toward a very direct style, keep in mind that you may intimidate a passive communicator — and this will get in the way of a productive exchange. You would do well to put the quieter person at ease. A passive speaker should try to get to the facts quickly for someone who speaks more directly. (This applies whether speaking in person or through writing.)

Scientists found that building common ground helped people communicate better. This could take the form of a shared goal or an interest you both have, which helps create a positive frame of reference for the other person. A quick nod to that common interest when you first reach out can set you up for a positive interaction.

Read more: The Science Behind Improving Communication in the Workplace

Be conscious of nonverbal cues.

Nonverbal signals transcend your words. In written workplace communication channels like Slack and email, the use of emojis, punctuation, and capitalization takes the place of facial expressions, gestures, and posture.

Simply cc’ing another person on an email sends a powerful nonverbal cue. A message carries a completely different tone when you add the recipient’s boss to the thread than if you were to include only the recipient. It’s the equivalent of inviting someone’s manager to join you when you sit down to talk. You introduce a new level of formality.

When you’re the listener, focus on understanding, not answering.

While we’re listening to the other person, too often we’re thinking ahead to what we’re going to say next. Project management professional Jennifer Bridges encourages waiting until a response is expected before giving up your role as listener. This means holding back the urge to speak until the other person pauses or asks you a question. (Write a quick note down if you’re afraid you’ll lose your thought. Then you can forget about it until it’s your time to speak.)

Assume positive intent.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to the other person goes a long way toward building positive workplace communication. According to Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, assuming positive intent makes a big difference. “You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different,“ she says.

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Why is this so powerful? Because assuming positive intent by the other person eliminates defensiveness. This breaks down barriers that crop up when we start to speculate on the other person’s motivations.

Confirm that you’ve understood.

Paraphrase what you heard, asking the other person to confirm that’s what they meant. (“Here’s what I heard.... Does that sum it up?”) This gives you a chance to gather any important points you may have missed.

Probe for details. Because your goal as the listener is to absorb and really hear what the speaker is saying, don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think you should know the answer. Open-ended questions will give the other person a chance to elaborate, which will deepen your understanding. Probe further if you’re not clear. Then, when you’ve really heard what the speaker needs, you will be better positioned to provide an answer.

Always close the loop.

Great communicators always make sure to close the loop. Jot down what you agreed on and send it to the other person. It doesn’t have to be formal — just a quick note will do. For example, after a call, reach out to the other person on Slack to follow up with a brief summary. After a meeting, send an email with a recap of the major decisions the group reached.

It may take a few extra minutes, but it shows the other person you’re committed to a positive outcome. You’re also potentially saving time down the road by reducing the chances of miscommunication.

Read more: The 10 Best Workplace Communication Articles for HR Teams

Help your people communicate better. The future of your business depends on it.

The evidence shows that the quality of communication at your business directly impacts its performance. But improving communication may feel like an overwhelming task. After all, you can never completely wipe out miscommunication, and there’s no easy way to make people want to speak up. Perhaps the best place to start is by building relationships and trust with your team. When strong relationships are your priority, you create a culture that feels safe for others to share what they think. Be an example to your team of how you want them to communicate with you. Don’t let yourself get swept up in negative communication practices. Whether you’re a middle manager or the CEO, it’s your job to model the change you know your team needs. Are you looking to create a communication strategy for a new initiative? Download this Communication Strategy Template to help you get started.

Read more on workplace communication: Where Workplace Communication Breaks Down and What Leaders Can Do About It