Communication Breakdown in the Workplace: 3 Causes and Solutions

The way we communicate with others is immensely important, especially when it comes to the workplace. A survey conducted in 2018 set out to uncover the ramifications of what happens when communication breaks down at work (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018). They also wanted to see what the causes of these breakdowns were.


Communication breakdown can happen in a variety of ways, from avoiding a difficult conversation with a manager or coworker, to a misunderstanding because of varying conversation styles or skill levels. This can manifest in many ways, such as someone feeling unheard because they can’t break into a conversation with other coworkers who may speak more assertively and energetically. Or perhaps someone has a coworker who tried to describe a project in an email but the meaning was unclear.


This issue is unfortunately very prevalent. In fact, 86% of workers experience communication breakdowns in the workplace (Lucidchart). This has a negative impact on companies as a whole.

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Three major causes of communication breakdown


There are a multitude of ways in which communication breakdowns can occur, but we wanted to highlight these three significant causes.


1. Missing Frameworks

We all come from different backgrounds and cultures while having unique personalities. This means the way people perceive others and interact with them is personalized (Tannen, 1995). For example, certain people may be more comfortable asserting themselves in a meeting compared to others. Each person is working with a different set of tools.


Differing communication styles is cited as the top reason for poor communication or miscommunication in the workplace (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018). Many times, the cause of these breakdowns can be followed back to missing frameworks for communication. The structures we are working from are simply different from others.


With such variations in the way we communicate, it only makes sense for there to be different styles. The problem is when they lead to communication breakdowns, which can cause negative consequences such as a third of employees feeling like they aren't being heard (Sideways6, 2018).

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2. Lack of self-awareness

We've previously written about the importance of cultivating self-awareness in leadership. Sometimes the way a person expresses themselves may not reflect what's actually going on under the surface. Take anger for example: a parent could be expressing anger toward their child who misbehaved. However, underneath that anger, the parent could be worried and concerned for their child's well-being (Benson, 2016).


This is true for the workplace as well. It can be easy to express negative emotions without understanding the layers of true feelings underneath. Similarly, the people on the other end of these negative emotions may not understand what is happening beneath the surface.


Surprisingly, while 95% of people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% of them actually are (Eurich, 2018). It shows that the way we view ourselves is not necessarily the truth. In this way, a lack of self-awareness can lead to miscommunication and ultimately communication breakdown.

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3. Lack of empathy

Empathy is described as having the knowledge of another person's state of mind and then being emotionally affected by how they feel (Steuber, 2013). It is a way in which we connect socially with others around us. But what happens when we lack this important ability in certain situations, especially in the workplace?


For 96% of employees, empathy is an important trait for their employers to have. However, 92% of these employees believe that empathy is not considered important in their workplace (Businessolver, 2018).


Coming back to the anger example, perhaps you're having a bad day, unrelated to what is happening at work. Then, a coworker asks you a question that you feel is unnecessary. Your initial reaction could be to yell at them, not thinking about the consequences of this action.


This is a lack of thought and empathy for the other person and what they must be feeling in that moment. Unfortunately, it can lead to damaging effects on the relationship. In that moment, you may not have thought about the impact of your actions, but you will certainly face the consequences after.

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Communication at work

Turnover

Avoiding tough conversations leads to reduced productivity and higher turnover rates.

The consequences of these communication breakdowns can be felt throughout the workplace. We wanted to look at the ways in which they present on a large scale. A 2019 survey looked at how people were avoiding difficult conversations in the workplace. They described how this avoidance led to reduced productivity and higher turnover rates (Bravely).

In 2018 alone, 27% of people reported leaving their jobs voluntarily (Work Institute, 2019). Turnover is very costly for companies, having to pay at least one-fifth of an employee's salary to replace them (Boushey & Glynn, 2012). Addressing communication barriers would help to reduce the time and money spent in this area.


Performance

There are financial impacts, project delays, and missed performance goals.


There are staggering statistics in regard to the consequences of miscommunication. 44% of respondents reported that communication barriers led to delay or failure to complete projects. Further, 25% reported to have missed their performance goals (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018).


From the 18% of respondents who said they lost a sale due to conversation breakdown, 30% of them shared that the value of these lost sales were over $100,000 (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018). This issue has clear consequences. It also leads to time spent solving problems related to miscommunications. A majority of workers spend a few hours each day, while others take a full day or more to address this issue (Lucidchart). We've previously written about communication as a motivation hygiene factor: without clear communication, employees experience frustration, stress, overwhelm, and burnout.


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Communication Breakdown: Impact on Culture and Employee Mental Health

Mental health

Not only do communication breakdowns impact companies at large, but they have negative effects on individuals and company culture.


Communication breakdowns cause stress and low morale.


Over half (52%) of respondents said that poor work communication led to increased stress (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018). Not only is there increased stress, but it leads to further repercussions. 31% responded that they experienced low morale, while 20% found poor communication to be an obstacle to innovation (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018). Productivity clearly takes a hit, causing overall negative impacts in the workplace.


Culture

Relationships are negatively impacted while motivation decreases.


When there are communication breakdowns, a lack of trust can grow. Employees may not trust that their coworkers or managers are able to impart information in a helpful way. In fact, 55% of CEOs expressed that a lack of trust was a threat to their company's growth (PwC, 2016). This is an unfortunate byproduct of communication breakdown that affects relationships on a personal level and the company as a whole.

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In terms of motivation, internal communication is an extremely important factor. When there is clear and honest communication between employees, the workplace thrives. Conversely, if there is a lack of clear communication, motivation decreases (Rajhans, 2019).


With so much on the line, it's important to find a way to decrease the chances of communication breakdowns within the workplace.

Communication training to prevent communication breakdowns

How can companies train to prevent communication breakdowns? Employee development apps such as LIFE Intelligence aim to reverse all three contributors to communication breakdown, by teaching:

1) Frameworks

2) Self-Awareness

3) Empathy

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How the LIFE Intelligence app can help you build company-wide communication skills

LIFE Intelligence is a workplace wellness and development app that provides robust, app-based education on self, career, and relationship development.

1) The self-development piece of the app provides employees with deep self-awareness on their thoughts, emotions, values, habits, motivators, and biases.

2) The career development piece gives employees frameworks they can use when having hard conversations, setting or reviewing goals, or making tough decisions. By bringing in real-world frameworks, from Toyota's problem-solving frameworks to agile development software development frameworks, LIFE provides a practical, robust toolkit for every situation.

3) Finally, LIFE's relationship development content brings in essential lessons from marriage counseling, in which communication breakdowns are often central problems in the relationship. By using those powerful communication and relationship-building skills in the workplace, employees can not only develop stronger connections, but also learn to resolve conflict and appreciate differences, for a diverse yet cohesive culture.

If you'd like to begin your journey to becoming a better communicator, or, if you'd like to resolve communication breakdowns in your workplace, try LIFE Intelligence free today.

Lydia Chang
January 14, 2021

References

Benson, Kyle. "The Anger Iceberg." The Gottman Institute, 2016.

Boushey, Heather & Glynn, Sarah Jane. There Are Significant Business Costs to Replacing 

Employees. Center for American Progress, 2012.

Bravely. The Cost of the Communication Gap on Workplace Health.

Businessolver. State of Workplace Empathy Executive Summary. Businessolver.com, Inc, 2018.

Eurich, Tasha. Working with People Who Aren't Self-Aware. Harvard Business Review, 2018

Lucidchart. The cost of communication breakdowns in the workplace.

PwC. Redefining business success in a changing world CEO Survey. PwC, 2016.

Rajhans, Kirti. Effective Organizational Communication: a Key to Employee Motivation and Performance. Interscience Management Review, 2009.

Sideways6. 2018 State of Employee Ideas.

Stueber, K. Empathy. International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013.

Tannen, Deborah. The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. Harvard Business Review, 1995.

The Economist Intelligence Unit. Communication barriers in the modern workplace. The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018.

Work Institute. 2019 Retention Report. Work Institute, 2019.

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