Communication Breakdown

We need to talk about what's going wrong with workplace communication.
By: | April 3, 2018 • 3 min read

Despite all the options available for workplace communication these days—from email to text message to Slack—miscommunication remains a real business problem.

That’s according to a new survey from The Economist Intelligence Unit, which was conducted from November 2017 to January 2018 and includes responses from over 400 senior executives, managers and junior staff at U.S. companies. Among the highlights of the survey:

  • 52 percent of respondents say that communication breakdowns have led to stress, and 31 percent of respondents say that low morale was the result of poor communication at work.
  • 44 percent of respondents cite miscommunication as the primary cause in failure to complete projects.
  • 37 percent of males define themselves as having a personal communication style, compared with only 27 percent of women. This contradicts the stereotype that women have more relationship-based communication styles.
  • 41 percent of middle managers surveyed said email was still the most effective communication tool.
  • 88 percent of millennial respondents believe poor communication has a negative impact on career growth.

Poor communication is having a tremendous impact on the workplace, according to the report, which says that “unclear instructions from superiors, pointless meetings and other stressors can snowball into larger issues” with widespread impacts on the business.

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Respondents to the survey say communication barriers are leading to a number of negative outcomes, including: delay or failure to complete projects (44 percent), low morale (31 percent), missed performance goals (25 percent) and even lost sales (18 percent).

But the news from the Economist Intelligence Unit isn’t all bad. It turns out different generations do agree on something: 65 percent of respondents say that face-to-face meetings are a very effective mode of communication—and this number does not vary significantly among generations. But here’s the downside: Only 22 percent say they have these types of meetings every day.

“We are best at face-to-face communication in small groups in real time,” says Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. “Yet globalization and flexible work schedules are distributing people in time, narrowing the window when people’s availability overlaps and they could meet in person. I don’t see that going away.”

So what can be done about all of this workplace miscommunication?

Meetings are a good place to start, according to the survey, which finds that 78 percent of respondents think having clearer goals for every scheduled meeting would have a significant impact on improving workplace communication, including 39 percent who say the improvement would be very significant.

Web Editor Michael J. O’Brien has been with HRE for more than a decade and holds a degree in economics from Boston College. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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