3 communication problems in the workplace to fix in 2020

Heather Hudson

Heather Hudson,


15 July 20200 min read

In the midst of a pandemic and long overdue attention to racial injustice, communication problems in the workplace are becoming exposed. Here are 3 issues to focus on for your team this year.

Events like a global pandemic and long overdue attention to racial injustice are shining light into the dark corners of corporate America. Organizations around the world are adjusting to remote work or reorganizing offices to accommodate physical distancing. And many have made sweeping changes, including the resignation of CEOs across a number of industries and a renewed focus on fair hiring practices.

The long-term effects of these transformations remain to be seen, but one thing teams are paying particular attention to is communication. With our customers, sure. But also internally. How connected do employees feel to their companies, leaders, and each other? Do they feel heard, valued, and understood? Are they comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions? How well do they understand their roles as the organization changes?

How do you know if your workplace has a communication problem?

The problem with communication problems in the workplace is that by nature, if you have one, no one will outright tell you about it — and even if you ask, they might not feel comfortable sharing it. You have to sniff it out on your own. Symptoms to look for include:

  • Limp employee engagement

  • High staff turnover

  • Tense or toxic working environment

  • Increased staff stress

  • Reduced productivity

  • Regular HR complaints — this might seem obvious, but it’s worth noting

If you thought ‘yes’ to more than one or two of these, you may have a serious and systemic communication problem in your workplace. And it probably pre-dated recent events.

The difficulty in addressing the issue is uncovering the root cause. After all, a sneeze could be a harbinger of a cold or other virus, a response to an allergen, or a simple reaction to sniffing in some pepper as you season a sandwich. You have to think about the problem before you can properly diagnose it.

The same is true for communication issues. It’s important to understand what’s standing in the way of a healthy, open, and collaborative workplace. While external events are certainly stressors, an organization with a strong communication ethos in place can withstand the rising tides of corporate tumult.

Here are three communication problems in the workplace you should address right now.

1. Not all employees feel they belong

Some leaders are learning for the first time that there are dramatic differences between the workplace experiences along lines of race, gender, and ethnicity. In their report The Power of Belonging: What It Is and Why It Matters in Today’s Workplace, the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shares stark findings after they measured employees’ sense of belonging. In short, white men score higher than female employees and employees of other races and ethnicities. Among those groups, Black women and Asian women score the lowest.

The first step is recognizing the problem — but the bulk of participants of the 2019 New Rules Summit, hosted by The New York Times, say changes need to happen to create equitable environments in the workplace. Among their recommendations was the idea of prioritizing creating real diversity and a sense of inclusion.

“If a company has 10 women and has 10 teams, conventional wisdom would be to put one woman on each team to add diversity. It may make more sense to cluster two to three women on a few teams so they feel more supported. Companies should also find ways to get small groups of like-minded employees together, to share experiences and counsel each other,” they recommended.

When an employee knows that others have their back, they’re more likely to take risks like sharing new ideas, giving meaningful feedback, and thinking outside the box.

“If we want the full benefits of diversity, we need more than one woman — or one person of color, or one L.G.B.T.Q. person in the room. Diversity starts with real numbers. And it’s about creating an environment where everyone feels like they belong and can do their best work,” said Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president, Lean In, and group leader at the New Rules Summit.

2. Deeper issues aren’t being addressed

Sometimes things aren’t what they appear. In Harvard Business Review, Art Markman University of Texas Professor of Psychology and Marketing, explained that people often point to communication as a problem when they can’t quite put their finger on the root cause of a concern.

“… Most people have a sense of whether they feel good or bad about their work and the company. When you ask for more specific information about what is making them feel good or bad, though, people often grope around for a rationale that could explain their feelings. Whether it does explain them is hard to judge,” he wrote.

Markman suggests that “communication problems” are often tied to deeper issues. Maybe employees aren’t clear on how their roles impact the company’s overarching goals, which makes it hard for them to make definitive action in their daily work — and makes them feel disengaged. It’s possible that there’s an unspoken toxic culture at work that limits staff members from being their true selves. There may be performance issues among some leaders or employees that are holding back team success — but which no one feels comfortable talking about.

“Start by engaging with people more specifically, getting them to think about specific things that have gone wrong. Instead of assuming that the cause of the problem is a lack of communication, analyze the situation to figure out why people would feel that they could not act effectively,” advises Markman.

3. Different communication styles are not honored

Who we are impacts the way we communicate. A millennial leader is not going to use the same terminology as a leader who is a year away from retirement. The world view of a Black woman will be different than that of a white man, based on their disparate life experiences. An analytical IT professional who makes all decisions based on logic and data likely has a personality that contrasts a right-brained creative type.

Most modern workplaces have been flattened of hierarchy and silos, meaning people from different departments get a chance to interact more often. While this is great for innovation, it can also make communication more difficult.

Many organizations wisely invest in training that helps employees understand each other better and combats insidious problems like sexism, racism, ageism, and ableism. Those are basics every business should be working toward 365 days of the year in everything they do.

It’s also a good idea to educate your company on how to work with a variety of communication styles. This doesn’t mean forcing everyone to take Meyers-Briggs test for the 12th time in their life — rather, it means having open discussions about how and when certain individuals like to communicate. Have your team dig into the meaty questions:

  • What time of day are you most likely to get annoyed if you’re interrupted?

  • What phrases are your pet peeves?

  • How do you like to receive feedback that’s negative? Positive?

  • When will I know you’re not in the mood for conversation?

  • What’s the best way to request help? Email? Or another channel?

Those are a few for starters.

While training is important, there are a few things leaders and employees can employ to help them connect with each other. Suffolk University professor Beverly D. Flexington advises practicing active listening as a start. “Listening is a skill. It takes practice and commitment to get better at it,” she wrote in Psychology Today.

  • Focus completely on what the other person is saying. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next; just listen to their words.

  • Make eye contact and offer non-verbal gestures like nods to show you’re listening.

  • Repeat back what you heard them say in your own words. “You’re feeling really overwhelmed by the volume of email you have to deal with every day.”

  • Ask questions. If you’re confused about how a colleague perceives a situation differently than you do, find out why. Be curious about their point of view.

As we navigate a new and uncertain world, it’s important to uncover communication problems in the workplace that may have been plaguing us all along. Now is the time to act on the change that’s all around us. And communication is at the heart of it all.

Written by Heather Hudson

Originally Published: 15 July 2020

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