How to Identify (And Resolve) Communication Problems at Work

Every job depends on communication, whether with customers, suppliers or co-workers. Poor communication leads to a stressful working environment and decreased productivity. Companies invest time and resources into improving communication, yet sometimes little seems to change. That is because the first step is to identify the type of communication problem, and then to devise an action plan, or else you risk wasting resources trying to solve the wrong problem. You need to identify whether the issues are systemic, organizational, interpersonal or personal.

Systemic communication problems are rooted in your business culture. For example, a firm that incentivizes competition between teams or individuals will find it hard to share good practice (why would you give away an advantage?) while a company that relies heavily on customer feedback may not hear essential messages from frontline staff. Systemic problems are self-reinforcing; they form what’s known as a “closed system.” So when staff is told to get customer feedback, but not encouraged to give their own, they feel ignored and undervalued. However, they don’t communicate this to management who, in the absence of feedback from staff, rely more heavily on customer comments, and so on.

Organisational problems arise from the structure of the business. They’re common in companies that have quickly grown from a start-up with a small team to a firm with several layers of management. In a small group with a common aim, communication is natural, so they overlook it as a potential problem. As the business grows, communication pathways are left unaddressed; after all, everyone has always known the aims and ethos of the company. Consequently, new staffers feel excluded or disempowered, or they have low job satisfaction when they’re told to do things “because that’s the way we do it.” It’s also common to find that problems have to be referred up to senior management rather than addressed by frontline staff because the organization’s structure still depends on having one or two people in charge.

Interpersonal problems happen between individuals or teams where neither is at fault, yet communication doesn’t seem to happen. That is often down to attitudes and expectations. If team leader X’s position is that team Y is disorganized (whether that’s true or not), they’re unlikely to ask the leader of team Y for help, even if sharing expertise or resources would benefit the company. Team leader X thinks that they’re acting in the best interests of the company; they’re not deliberately obstructive or unhelpful, but communication gets interrupted. A common problem with expectations occurs when someone is promoted to manage the team in which they previously worked. Their expectations of how people will respond influence them more than what’s happening, leading to the common complaint that “They’ve changed since they got promoted,” which in turn leads to negative feelings and lack of communication.

Finally, personal communication issues arise when one person or a small group has an adverse effect, for example by spreading gossip, keeping secrets or just not passing on information. That may be because they are trying to make themselves indispensable by metering out information, or because they need to feel liked or relevant. Personal communication problems should always be the last option that you consider when trying to diagnose what’s wrong; it’s easy to scapegoat an unpopular person for what is a systemic or organizational issue.

Once you’re clear where the problem lies, you can address it more effectively. A systemic problem can’t be solved unless you disrupt the “closed” feedback loop. That might mean an internal reorganization, but it can be as simple as opening up a new channel of communication to break that closed circle. If the problem is organizational, think about where the connection is weakest. Is it down from leadership to frontline workers, or up from workers up to management, or sideways between departments? Whichever direction of communication is most ineffectual is where an action plan should focus. It is best to address interpersonal communication problems by having all parties sit down together, making it clear that no individual is being blamed, and ask them to work together on the issue. Often the simple action of collaborating like this is enough to improve the situation, regardless of which measures they devise. Finally, personal communication problems should be dealt with through performance review and, if necessary, through disciplinary procedures.

Communication problems in businesses can be systemic, organizational, interpersonal or personal. Strategies to solve problems often fail because the wrong issue is being addressed, for example by blaming an individual for a systemic problem or by increasing the amount of information going to frontline staff without ever improving the way they talk to each other. Identifying the nature of the problem allows you to put in place an effective targeted solution.