How to overcome 14 common communication challenges in the workplace
Last updated on: December 16, 2022
Quality communication is the lifeblood of collaboration and productivity. Good communication ensures that we understand our professional surroundings and our individual responsibilities, and provides all the necessary information to perform our tasks effectively. Furthermore, we interact with our colleagues through different forms of communication, thus not only strengthening interpersonal relationships but also fueling collaboration and knowledge exchange.
Team communication involves a varying number of participants, performs a variety of functions, and takes place in a variety of directions. With so many moving parts, there is a nearly infinite number of potential challenges that can cause communication breakdowns and disruptions.
In this article, we will examine some of the most common communication challenges in the workplace and provide suggestions on how to overcome them.
Challenge #1: Lack of communication
This one seems obvious, doesn’t it? Many organizations, however, struggle with providing a sufficient amount of information, whether it’s work-related info, available knowledge resources, news updates, or simply room for active discussion.
🔸 Why is the lack of communication a problem in the workplace?
Lack of communication creates a sense of isolation which, over time, can lead to a sense of disassociation from the organization and decrease the engagement and the emotional investment into their work. Furthermore, lack of communication can lead to important information being lost or delayed and create a vacuum in which rumors and hearsay can further disrupt the environment. Most critically, lack of communication can lead to misunderstandings and breakdowns in individual and collaborative work.
🔸 How to overcome lack of communication:
Primarily, organizations need to provide a comprehensive communication platform that enables both active discussion and effective distribution of information. The role of organizations, however, is not limited to providing the means of communication. Instead, organizations need to make communication a habit, keeping everyone in the loop through company-wide emails and messages, newsletters, intranet updates, all-hands meetings, etc.
Challenge #2: Information overload
Contemporary workplace communication requires a substantial body of information. However, organizations can easily cross the line between providing team members with all the necessary information and overwhelming them with excessive information. This leads to information overload — more emails, more company-wide memos, more meetings, more shared files, and questionably useful links.
🔸 Why is information overload a problem in the workplace?
Team members need space for focused work, and constant distractions disrupt the individual work process. Requiring team members to process more information than is necessary is not only wasteful to their time and mental capacities but also leads to disengagement and demotivation, which in turn result in decreased productivity and general disconnection.
🔸 How to overcome information overload:
Finding the right balance between enough and too much information is an empirical process that’s different for every team. As organizations strive to establish the optimal communication and information flow, they should prioritize quality over quantity, limit their content distribution channels, filter information for increased clarity, and continually assess the ratio of time spent on processing information and the value it provides.
💡 Information overload and overcommunication are often considered synonymous, but the practices are quite different. Read on to learn more about the importance of overcommunication!
Challenge #3: Lack of formal communication structure
Professional communication includes not only active discussion but also effective distribution of information. A clear structure of communication and information channels ensures that everyone has quick and efficient access to all relevant information. This includes everything from news and updates, across policies, work tools, and knowledge resources, all the way to direct communication lines. The absence of structure leads to confusion and ineffectiveness.
🔸 Why is the lack of formal communication structure a problem in the workplace?
Unstructured communication can create a variety of communication breakdowns. Important information gets lost, delayed, or overlooked, time is wasted seeking information, relevant connections aren’t established, and so on. All of these issues impact not only the quality of communication but the performance itself.
🔸 How to overcome the lack of formal communication structure:
The organization of clear and efficient communication and information lines needs to be one of the top communication priorities for all organizations.
The goal is to provide access to all relevant information, resources, and people as practically and efficiently as possible. This can be achieved by any combination of team chat apps, Intranets, newsletters, bulletin boards, cross-department workgroups, open-door policies, and other means and resources.
The choice of these means and resources will depend on the preferences of an organization, and it is important to note that organizations don’t need to utilize all of them. Instead, they need to focus on covering all the necessities with as few tools as possible, in order to avoid information and technology overload.
Challenge #4: Self-censoring due to social status
Status consciousness represents the awareness of team members of their status within the organization’s hierarchy, which dictates their behavior towards those in lower or higher positions.
🔸 Why is self-censoring due to social status a problem in the workplace?
Status consciousness can discourage team members from expressing their concerns, discussing the issues they experience, and communicating negative information to their superiors. Conversely, it can also prevent team leaders and upper management from considering the input of their subordinates. Both scenarios represent a strong communication barrier.
🔸 How to overcome self-censoring due to social status:
In order to prevent the negative manifestations of status consciousness, organizations need to encourage open and honest communication on all levels. This is achieved systematically, by installing open and transparent channels of communication that enable upward communication, as well as individually, by seeking and encouraging input from subordinates.
Challenge #5: Concealing or softening negative information
The practice of concealing or softening negative information is called message filtering. This practice arises from fear of repercussions or a desire to present oneself more favorably. Message filtering can take place both upwards, from subordinates reporting to their superiors, and in downwards communication from the management to the employees.
🔸 Why is concealing or softening negative information a problem in the workplace?
Filtering messages in order to conceal negative information can result in greater damages further down the road, as existing issues remain unresolved and critical information that can help identify and correct those issues is withheld.
🔸 How to overcome concealing or softening negative information:
Message filtering can be decreased or eliminated by fostering an open and safe environment where team members can address negative situations and admit mistakes without fear of punishment.
Challenge #6: Lack of cross-team coordination
Communication and coordination are the two essential elements of collaboration.
Lack of coordination takes place when different parties involved in a collaboration fail to fully communicate all relevant aspects of their shared work.
Whether between members of the same team, between different teams, or different organizations, poor coordination results in a lack of understanding of how the collaboration is supposed to work and how the individual pieces fit together in this plan.
🔸 Why is the lack of cross-team coordination a problem in the workplace?
Poor coordination can have damaging effects on the collaborative process. Different parties work in varying degrees of isolation without fully understanding what the other sides are doing and how it all comes together. This leads to ineffective work, repeat activities, and can cause dissatisfaction and conflicts. Coordination is necessary to maximize the time and skills of individual collaborators.
🔸 How to overcome the lack of cross-team coordination:
Lack of coordination essentially represents a failure to communicate. Coordination starts by clearly communicating the purpose and the mechanics of the collaboration from its very inception. This includes clearly defining the team goals, the individual roles and responsibilities, and the plan that binds the individual contributions into a team effort.
Furthermore, organizations need to establish clear lines of communication between the collaborators and maintain them throughout the course of the collaboration.
If coordination breakdowns do take place, organizations need to identify the root cause in team communication and adjust the communication lines.
Challenge #7: Information silos
An information silo is a situation in which important information is not shared between all relevant parties. Instead, it remains exclusive to certain teams or individuals within the organization. It is caused by a combination of poor communication practices, absence of trust, lack of transparency, and low collaboration between different parts of an organization.
🔸 Why are information silos a problem in the workplace?
Information silos can have many damaging effects on the work process. They lead to wasting time, as relevant information is not readily available. Furthermore, they can result in duplicate work, ineffectiveness, and delays. Additionally, they cause mistrust, friction, and rivalry between different teams.
🔸 How to overcome information silos:
There are no quick-fix solutions for breaking down information silos. It requires a comprehensive approach that includes improving cross-team communication, increasing transparency and visibility of the efforts of teams and individuals, encouraging an open culture of knowledge-sharing, and establishing and promoting collaboration between different parts of an organization.
Challenge #8: Lack of feedback
Effective two-way communication is one of the pillars of modern collaborative work. Two-way feedback is one of the most important aspects of work communication, as it not only informs team members of their work, but also helps identify any emerging issues, increases employee engagement, and helps shape and improve the work process. The lack of feedback robs organizations of these valuable insights.
🔸 Why is the lack of feedback a problem in the workplace?
Irregular and inadequate feedback can cause both immediate and long-term issues. Without feedback, team members lack clarity and directions regarding their work, which can negatively impact their performance. Feedback can provide team members with a sense of visibility and recognition of their work, while lack of feedback can lead to demotivation and disengagement with the work and the organization. Lack of employee feedback prevents organizations from recognizing existing internal challenges and thus improving the processes.
🔸 How to overcome the lack of feedback:
Lack of feedback is resolved by systematically providing and seeking out feedback. It starts with establishing channels that enable and encourage upward communication. Furthermore, team leaders and managers need to regularly provide and encourage feedback through 1-on-1 interviews, team meetings, and employee surveys. In this process, it is important that organizations don’t stop at providing and gathering information, but to follow through and act upon it when necessary.
Challenge #9: Lack of knowledge-sharing
Collective knowledge is the greatest resource of any organization. However, the knowledge of individuals and teams is not always made accessible to whole organizations, thus limiting their collective potential. Effective knowledge management is one of the most important tasks for organizations.
🔸 Why is the lack of knowledge-sharing a problem in the workplace?
Lack of knowledge-sharing significantly limits the overall potential of an organization. When valuable know-how isn’t shared effectively on an organization level, organizations run the risk of losing that know-how when individuals leave a company. This requires additional time and resources to recruit and train employees and provide them with the necessary experience that enriches their skill set. Furthermore, active knowledge-sharing increases the sense of recognition of individual team members, thus improving employee engagement and retention.
🔸 How to overcome the lack of knowledge-sharing:
In order to improve knowledge-sharing, organizations should strive to build and maintain a dedicated knowledge base that gathers its specialized know-how. Additionally, organizations need to actively incentivize knowledge-sharing by providing a platform, recognizing and rewarding individual efforts, and encouraging collaboration between disparate individuals and teams.
Challenge #10: Lack of engagement
In the context of internal communications, organizations are essentially content hubs. If team members don’t engage with and respond to the content that the company produces, if they feel disassociated from its proclaimed vision and values, it can be a symptom of faulty communication practices.
🔸 Why is the lack of engagement a problem in the workplace?
Employees that are responsive to the organization’s messages and engaged with its guiding principles are more driven and motivated to contribute to the success of the whole. Conversely, disengaged employees are less motivated and invested in the shared work, which hinders their performance and their commitment.
🔸 How to overcome the lack of engagement:
Lack of engagement is usually the result of a number of factors, not all of which are rooted in poor communication practices. However, communication is certainly a contributing factor. When formulating and distributing messages, organizations should consider the following aspects: the relevance of the message to the receiver, the optimal amount of information, clarity of information, the optimal channels of distribution, and the possibility of feedback.
Challenge #11: Poor written communication
In a modern work setting, a large volume of communication takes place in writing. The quality of business writing represents the organization. While poor grammar, weak sentence structure, and general disregard for tidiness is acceptable in informal work communication, it has no place in company-wide communication and distribution of information. Poorly written communication also includes heavy use of professional jargon and slang, as well as disregard for language barriers.
🔸 Why is poorly written communication a problem in the workplace?
Official written communication, in its many forms, is a reflection of an organization. Grammatical errors, lack of clarity, structure, and order in written communication damages the perception of the organization in the eyes of employees, suggesting a lack of professionality and attention to detail. More importantly, it can also have practical consequences, as poorly worded messages (such as unclear directions, jargon-filled text, complex wording, etc.) can create confusion and uncertainty, which can have a negative effect on both employee performance and satisfaction.
🔸 How to overcome poorly written communication:
The primary purpose of company-wide communication is to be clearly understood. Many organizations hire communications specialists to handle the creation and distribution of company-wide content. If that is not the case, content creators should at the very least use different grammar tools and involve others in the process to ensure the quality, clarity, and relevance of written communication. The language needs to be plain and easily understandable
Challenge #12: Negative attitudes
Workplace communication is often impeded by attitudinal barriers, defined as behaviors or perceptions that prevent people from communicating effectively. Negative attitudes are primarily influenced by common variables such as age, gender, education, experience, upbringing, lifestyle, or race, and are commonly expressed through behaviors such as prejudice, stereotyping, or emotionality.
🔸 Why are negative attitudes a problem in the workplace?
Negative attitudes are divisive by nature, meaning that they tend to sow misunderstanding, disagreement, and conflict. They not only hinder effective communication but also disrupt team cohesion and collaboration.
🔸 How to overcome negative attitudes:
Negative attitudes are rarely rooted in communication, but they can be either exacerbated or managed through communication. While negative attitudes are quite varied and (if needed) should be addressed by team leaders and HR professionals, organizations should tailor their communication to prevent the emergence or nourishment of negative attitudes by being respectful and inclusive to all team members, using affirmative tone and language that focuses on positives, and encouraging feedback. Negative attitudes can be further minimized by encouraging collaboration and eliminating team hierarchies to ensure that everyone has an equal say.
Challenge #13: Time zones
This challenge is specific to organizations and teams distributed across distant geographical locations. However, as remote work continues to gain a stronger foothold in the professional market, this challenge also continues to grow in importance.
🔸 Why are different time zones a problem in the workplace?
Team members working in different time zones present a specific set of practical operational challenges. As overlapping work hours between geographically dispersed team members are limited or non-existent, the communication unavoidably takes on a different shape. The primary challenge is inconsistent communication and collaboration which can result in unnecessary delays, overlooked messages, and productivity drops. Additional challenges include narrow meeting windows, lack of social interaction, and lack of opportunities for individual recognition.
🔸 How to overcome different time zones:
Organizations can overcome this communicational challenge by adhering to the best practices of working across time zones. These practices include prioritizing clear and effective written communication, embracing asynchronous communication rooted in clearly defined team roles and clear processes and guidelines, collective adoption of communication tools, and the respect of both professional boundaries and cultural differences.
Challenge #14: Technology
In today’s day and age, communication is increasingly fueled by technology. For organizations with multiple offices, as well as the ever-growing number of organizations opting for a remote or a hybrid work model, technology is the only way to keep their disparate parts connected and engaged in shared work.
🔸 Why is technology a problem in the workplace?
Organizations that struggle to accept digital communication tools provide their competitors with a clear competitive edge. Not only do they fail to capitalize on the obvious benefits of modern communication technology (immediacy, cost-effectiveness, bridging of geographies, etc.), but they also run the risk of missing out on talents now expecting a more flexible work environment.
🔸 How to overcome technology challenges:
Organizations need to carefully consider their technological infrastructure for communication. Today’s work landscape requires a comprehensive communication platform that handles all communication needs of an organization — from direct communication to information and knowledge sharing. Properly assessing the communicational needs is the first step towards choosing the best team communication tools for their specific setting.
In conclusion: A challenge is an opportunity to communicate better
As the global workforce grows more physically distant and reliant on technology, effective internal communication becomes one of the crucial aspects of organizational structure. The emergence of different communication challenges needs to be perceived not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to reassess the communication structure and improve the information flow and professional interactions.
The scenarios highlighted in this blog post represent common occurrences in many workplaces. They are here to help you identify similar challenges in your own professional surroundings and manage them constructively. Rather than causing stress and dissatisfaction, identifying communication challenges should be seen as an opportunity to improve the way we interact with fellow professionals and communicate better for a more fulfilling and productive workplace.