May 1, 2018

Poor Communication Is Having a Tremendous Impact on the Workplace

Merriam-Webster defines 'communication' as a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. This simple concept is often painstakingly difficult to implement effectively in any company. Therefore, I read with great enthusiasm the findings of a survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU) and sponsored by Lucidchart, a visual productivity platform that helps anyone understand and share ideas, information, and processes with clarity, that reveals some of the perceived causes and effects of these communication breakdowns.

Entitled Communication barriers in the modern workplace, the survey's executive summary says, "It wasn't long ago that a work meeting meant gathering around a table to discuss an agenda. These days you may be using Slack, Hangouts or other digital collaboration platforms that blend messaging with video and allow real-time editing of documents. Even with these tools, communication at work can still break down, potentially endangering careers, creating stressful work environments and slowing growth."

The survey, conducted from November 2017 to January 2018, included 403 senior executives, managers and junior staff at US companies divided equally and from companies with annual revenue of less than US$10m, between US$10m and US$1bn and more than US$1bn. The survey research provides insights about what employees see as the biggest barriers to workplace communication, the causes of the barriers and their impact on work life. Below are the survey's key highlights:

Poor communication is having a tremendous impact on the workplace.
"Unclear instructions from superiors, pointless meetings and other stressors can snowball into larger issues with widespread impacts on the business. Respondents say communication barriers are leading to a delay or failure to complete projects (44%), low morale (31%), missed performance goals (25%) and even lost sales (18%)—some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The most frequently cited cause of communication barriers is fundamentally human: different communication styles.
"In an age of constantly changing and real-time communication tools, this barrier is made more complex by generational and functional differences in communication preferences."

The use of instant messaging and social media at work reflects a gap between how generations use certain communication tools.
"Nearly a third of millennials (31%) say they use instant messaging at work every day, compared with only 12% of baby boomers. Tomorrow's executives will find they have to adapt if they want to be effective today when working with older generations that prefer to pick up a phone. At the same time, older generations would be wise to embrace the new communication tools on which developing leaders will continue to rely."

There is a discrepancy between the communication tools that people find most effective and the ones they regularly use.
"Visual-based tools, for example, are relatively underused compared with their effectiveness. Video conferencing, presentation decks, white boards and sketch pads are largely seen as somewhat or very effective at helping respondents share ideas and understand them well. However, email, which is the most commonly used method of workplace communication, is not considered very effective by the majority of respondents."

An employee's place in the pecking order affects the fallout they face from poor communication.
"Middle managers tend to be affected the most by communication barriers. For example, nearly half of directors (49%) say their colleagues experience the consequences of poor communication either frequently or very frequently—more than C-level executives and non-manager employees. This fact though is not so surprising considering they are constantly conveying information back and forth between senior executives and junior employees, both of whom have different approaches to communication."

As a manager, I appreciate the report's findings that "[o]vercoming communication barriers will ultimately have to involve not only accommodating different personal styles, but also ensuring that management's communications are effective and account for generational differences in how information is shared at work." Moreover, "Different communication styles and ineffective use of communication tools are contributing to the lack of clarity about responsibilities that is evident in the research, and certainly adding to workplace stress levels. In fact, the survey shows that unclear instructions from a senior colleague or manager is the most frequently cited stressful situation at work."
Lastly, I find comfort in the report's concluding paragraph:
Work environments don't have to be full of miscommunication land mines, and businesses can take practical steps to improve communication. Meetings are a good place to start. The survey shows that 78% of respondents think having clearer goals for every scheduled meeting would have a significant impact on improving workplace communication, including 39% who say the improvement would be very significant. Moreover, six out of ten respondents say firm-wide training (62%) and having a wider range of communication tools to use (63%) would significantly improve work communication. By improving in areas such as these, as well as being aware of communication differences and the best applications of various tools, the workforce can both communicate more effectively and keep pace with the inevitable continuous change in when and how we connect at work.
Do you have any recommendations on how to communicate more effectively in the workplace?

Aaron Rose is an advisor to talented entrepreneurs and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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