The barriers to effective communication
Effective communication is crucial in any professional setting.
Whether you’re participating in a meeting, conversing with your colleagues, or attending a presentation, navigating through communication barriers can be challenging. These barriers often obstruct the smooth flow of information, leading to misunderstandings that waste valuable time and resources.
Therefore, it is vital to identify these barriers and find ways to minimize their impact.
In this article, we’ll explore common communication barriers across different industries and provide practical solutions to bridge these gaps. So, let’s dive in and see how you can enhance communication within your team!
Table of Contents
What is a communication barrier?
Before we dive deep into the 8 types of communication barriers, we’ll look at how communication barriers are defined in the professional world.
In essence, any problem or obstacle that gets in the way of the communication process qualifies as a communication barrier.
The truth is, rarely any communication situation is devoid of communication barriers, as they can occur at any stage of the interaction. For this reason, it’s essential that we become familiar with specific causes and learn how to overcome communication barriers in the workplace.
Although classifications vary, the most common communication barriers are:
- Physical barriers,
- Perceptual barriers,
- Emotional barriers,
- Cultural barriers,
- Language barriers,
- Gender barriers,
- Interpersonal barriers, and
- Organizational barriers.
Given that each of the above barriers has its own challenges, merely knowing the classification isn’t enough to optimize workplace communication.
As we’ve mentioned, we’re bound to run into obstacles in professional communication.
But, this doesn’t mean that barriers to communication doom all business interactions to failure. By learning more detail about communication barriers, you’ll get a clear overview of how they impact conversation and understand which preventative measures to take.
Physical barriers to effective team communication + solutions
Physical barriers to communication represent the various environmental and natural conditions that act as barriers between the senders and receivers of information.
These physical barriers include challenges related to:
- Time and distance,
- Personal space,
- Workplace design,
- Work environment, and
- Background noise.
Physical barrier #1: Time and distance
The barriers related to time and distance typically affect remote teams whose members work from home.
Remote teammates do not work in the same office or even at the same time. Instead, they may operate on a different continent and time zone. This makes real-time communication difficult and in-person communication inconvenient or near impossible — unless one teammate is willing to accommodate the other, work at night, or fly across the globe regularly.
Example of a communication barrier based on time and distance
Let’s look at a remote software developer team consisting of 5 software developers who live across the globe.
The developers are already geographically apart — and the time difference means they are unlikely to work at the same time.
For example, the project manager may start working at 9 a.m. EST when their teammates have started wrapping up work at 3 p.m. CET.
Because of these time differences, the team can rarely work together at the same time — and they need to find other ways to collaborate.
Top solutions for problems with time and distance
Embracing asynchronous communication can help prevent time and distance from causing communication barriers in the workplace. Consider using specialized apps, such as:
- A team communication app: It allows for direct messaging, audio/video calls, topic-based channels, and scheduling messages.
- A project management tool: You can use it to communicate project details.
- A time tracker: You can use it to indicate and track everyone’s work hours.
- A time converter app: It helps you see everyone’s time zones and organize meetings accordingly.
By taking advantage of the above tools, you’ll be able to make in-person work more efficient and address the challenges of remote and hybrid work.
Physical barrier #2: Personal space
In verbal, face-to-face communication, personal space plays a crucial role.
Namely, the distance that applies only to in-person communication may act as a facilitator to good communication or as a barrier to effective communication — depending on whether it’s adequately interpreted and arranged.
We can recognize 4 types of distance between in-person communicators:
- Intimate space: The distance between the communicators is less than 18 inches (0.45 meters). It’s usually reserved for close relationships, such as between a parent and child or between partners.
- Personal space: The distance between communicators is 2–3 feet (0.6–0.9 meters). It’s typically associated with friends and peer groups.
- Official space: The distance between communicators is 4–5 feet (1.2–1.5 meters), depending on the type of information transmitted. This type of space is associated with official situations, such as most communication situations at work.
- Public space: The distance between communicators is over 10 feet (3 meters). Public space is associated with speakers and listeners in public situations, like speaking events.
Reducing these space requirements may lead to awkward or embarrassing situations.
But, this depends on a person’s culture.
Namely, people from the US and Northern Europe dislike having their personal space violated.
But, people from South American countries and the Middle East belong to so-called “contact cultures.” This means they’re more comfortable with people coming closer, even if they’re not close friends.
This makes space not only a physical barrier to effective communication but often a cultural one as well.
Example of a communication barrier based on personal space
In the conference room of a marketing agency, employees Steve and Manuel are sitting in the front row listening to the company’s head of HR, Charlotte, deliver a speech about the company’s planned cultural development.
The conference room is relatively small, but there are a lot of employees — they needed to squeeze in 10 rows, so the front row is only 3 feet away from Charlotte.
Charlotte needs to keep her voice loud so that the people in the back row can hear her clearly.
Because of this, she appears too loud to Steve and Manuel, who are thus more focused on the discomfort they are feeling because of Charlotte’s voice volume than on the message she is trying to convey.
Top solutions for problems with personal space
In a professional setting, always maintain a moderate distance from the people you are speaking with.
When it comes to public speeches in smaller spaces, consider organizing a virtual meeting instead.
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Physical barrier #3: Workplace design
Workplace design has a crucial influence on communication effectiveness in the workplace.
For example, the seating arrangements can facilitate effective communication — when team members who need to communicate and collaborate daily are seated at connected desks.
But, the seating arrangement can also become a barrier to communication, primarily when it isn’t addressed promptly.
Example of a communication barrier based on workplace design
What do difficulties with office layout look like in practice? We’ll look at a customer support team whose workstations are in the same area to learn more.
Although the team members work from the same room, their desks are separated by cubicles.
Whenever an emergency arises or teammates want to speak to each other, they need to go from cubicle to cubicle to pass on information. They face similar difficulties when they want to ask or answer a question.
This practice slows down their response time for customers and lowers their overall efficacy.
Top solutions for problems with workplace design
An open office plan can go a long way in fixing a subpar layout.
After swapping out separate offices and cubicles for open tables, it becomes much easier to communicate in person.
But, in companies with a remote or hybrid model, reaching someone in person isn’t always possible.
In that case, use threads in your team communication app to keep all team members posted and on top of the latest developments.
Physical barrier #4: Work environment
The chief element of a work environment that may hinder effective communication is comfort — or, more precisely, the potential lack of it.
Namely, if the company or home office is too hot or cold, people may not be able to fully focus on the information being communicated in business situations. The same applies if the desks and chairs are too low or high or the office lighting is too bright or dim.
Example of a communication barrier based on work environment
Have you ever shared an office with a coworker? If so, you may have found yourself in Matt or David’s shoes.
Matt and David are 2 sales specialists that work in a shared office.
The desks in their office are too low for their liking, while the comfortableness of their chairs leaves a lot to be desired.
Moreover, they often have disputes about the thermostat. Matt often finds that it is too hot, while David often finds that it is too cold.
Because of these work environment issues, the 2 sales specialists are occasionally unfocused while conversing with customers, each other, and colleagues.
Top solutions for problems with work environment
While you can’t always completely change your work environment, small tweaks can make your time in the office more enjoyable.
First, try to adjust what you can and learn how to adapt to what you can’t adjust. For example, if the office is too cold for one colleague but too hot for the other, dress accordingly — wear short sleeves or bring a jacket.
And, if you’re after more long-term changes, you can organize an informal meeting with your colleagues and see if you can all reach a compromise.
Physical barrier #5: Background noise
Noise is a common barrier to communication in the workplace. Background noise can stem from several reasons, including:
- Colleagues talking nearby (often experienced by people who work in an office),
- Family members, roommates, or partners talking nearby (often experienced by people who work from home),
- Copy machines, kitchen noise, and other inside noises, and
- Outside noises from thunderstorms, traffic, or lawn equipment.
While some people can tune out and ignore the above distractions, most struggle to maintain their cognitive performance when exposed to loud intermittent noises.
Interestingly, introverts may have more problems focusing in noisy environments. A study from a research center in Glasgow examined the effect of background noise on both extroverts and introverts.
Although both groups performed poorly when background noise was present, the noise distractions significantly impacted the introverted participants. Since introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli, it’s unsurprising that loud environments prevent them from doing their best work.
So, the extent to which noises prevent us from focusing on our tasks may be down to our personality type.
Example of a communication barrier based on background noise
To glean just how distracting background noise can be in the workplace, we’ll look at Adam, Leila, and Craig, who are all members of the content team.
Since their workstations are close together, even the slightest noise can be a major disturbance — especially when Adam cranks up the volume.
While creating content, Adam likes to listen to popular music. He uses headphones, but the music is loud enough for Craig and Leila to hear everything.
Leila and Craig often need to talk about the content she writes. But, the fact they can hear Adam’s music often distracts them from the points they are trying to make.
Top solutions for problems with background noise
First, research the best ways to manage background noise.
Perhaps you’ll find that noise-canceling headphones are a great all-encompassing solution.
Or, maybe you’ll find that playing a noise generator app via regular headphones blocks most noise.
If the problem is noisy colleagues, talk with them — try to find a suitable noise-reducing solution together.
Perceptual barriers to effective team communication + solutions
Perceptual barriers to communication represent the mental blocks people may have that influence their perceptions about specific people, topics, or events.
These perceptions form intra-personal barriers that affect how people send, receive, or interpret messages in conversations.
Perceptual barriers to effective communication include perceptual filters but also nonverbal language.
Perceptual barrier #1: Perceptual filters
Perceptual filters to effective communication include our:
- Cognitive biases,
- Values, and
Unfortunately, these “filters” may lead to misunderstandings, stereotyping, and assumptions in communication. Such “filters” often make us closed-minded to opinions that are different from our own or ideas that go beyond what we consider “usual,” “expected,” or “normal.”
Example of a communication barrier based on perceptual filters
We all construct our model of the world based on past experiences, which means that our filters usually lead to a few blind spots.
Consequently, these blind spots can negatively affect the people around us, as is the case with Erica, who has just joined a team of medical surgeons.
She just finished her specialization and is the daughter of the head of the hospital. Because of this, Erica’s colleagues assume she is inexperienced and, even worse, admitted to the team simply because her father appoints the staff.
Erica is also a staunch supporter of new surgical research — research her colleagues are still wary of.
Because of their assumptions and differences in values, the rest of the surgical team tends to ignore Erica during breaks.
As a result, Erica is often left in the dark about important happenings in the hospital.
Top solutions for problems with perceptual filters
Just because you perceive someone in a certain way doesn’t mean your perceptions hold true in reality.
Before declaring that you know exactly what someone thinks or feels, gaining all the relevant information is essential. This requires a certain level of flexibility, which can be hard when we refuse to question our own beliefs.
In the book Big Ideas: Putting the Zest Into Creativity & Innovation at Work, Jonne Cesarini touches on perceptual position. The author defines them as the outlooks we use as starting positions when thinking about specific topics and circumstances. Cesarini also goes on to describe 4 perceptual positions:
- The “I” position: We base our worldview on our past experiences, assumptions, and beliefs.
- The “You” position: We step into someone else’s shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from.
- The “They” position: We detach ourselves from our emotions and the feelings of everyone involved in the situation. The goal is to become an impartial observer who comes in from a factual standpoint.
- The “We” position: We consider the bigger picture and adopt the perspective of a larger entity, such as a company or similar institution.
When we make a conscious effort to leave the “I” position and change our outlook, we can:
- Identify the shortcomings in our perspective,
- Get a clearer understanding of the people around us,
- Participate in more win-win situations,
- Learn how to overcome communication barriers, and
- Become more flexible and creative.
Of course, this is only possible if we’re willing to show up in our personal and professional lives with more empathy.
Perceptual barrier #2: Nonverbal language
Nonverbal facial expressions, triggers, and cues represent the body language people emit while communicating.
This body language may be connected with the intended meaning of the messages the communicator is trying to convey. But, it may also be intentionally or unintentionally misleading.
In line with that, other people may perceive the nonverbal language of their fellow communicators correctly, or they might misinterpret it.
Example of a nonverbal language challenge
How can nonverbal language give rise to problems in the workplace? Let’s take Noah and Larissa, the only customer support specialists in an online fashion shop, as an example.
Recently, a customer has returned a valuable shipment, asking for a full refund. The reason cited is that a customer support specialist led her on about the color of the dresses ordered.
Julia, the head of customer support, calls up Noah and Larissa to discuss the matter and find the person responsible.
During the separate interviews, both Noah and Larissa deny it was them — but both display deceptive behavior, including:
- Averting their eyes when answering questions,
- Showing signs of alarm and panic,
- Fake smiling, and
- Fidgeting and looking stressed.
In truth, Noah is the one to blame.
Larissa is just nervous because she’s being interrogated on such an important matter.
The problem is that Julia cannot immediately spot the liar because her perception of Noah’s and Larrisa’s nonverbal language tells her they are both lying.
Top solutions for problems with nonverbal language
Observing nonverbal language can help you decide whether someone is lying, trying to conceal information or to mislead you.
But, it shouldn’t be the sole reason you decide to distrust someone.
So, don’t just look for disparities between people’s words and facial expressions.
Instead, always focus on what they are saying first. Don’t be shy to ask more questions if you cannot decide whether someone’s words match your perception of their nonverbal language.
These questions should be specific open-ended questions and direct “Yes/No” questions a person cannot evade.
The more questions you ask, the closer you will be to discovering what you want.
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Emotional barriers to effective team communication + solutions
Emotional barriers to communication represent the emotions that may hold you back from communicating what you want to your teammates. These emotions might also stop you from listening to others attentively and accepting their point of view.
These key emotional barriers include:
- Pride, and
Emotional barrier #1: Anger
Anger is an emotional barrier to communication that affects how your brain processes information.
Because of anger, you are less likely to be logical in discussions.
Moreover, you are less likely to contribute productively to solving problems — and more likely to oppose other people’s ideas.
The people you are projecting your anger to will usually become defensive, scared, or hurt.
As a result, people may hesitate to contact you in case of an emergency — even if you objectively are the best person to solve the problem.
Example of a communication barrier based on anger
Emotional barriers to communication can be detrimental to team collaboration. When those in leadership positions don’t know how to manage their anger, teamwork suffers the brunt of this emotion, as evidenced by Ginny’s situation below.
Ginny is a project manager at a software development company.
The project she is currently working on is late, and she has organized an emergency meeting to discuss what can be done to speed up and re-organize work.
During the discussion, Ginny becomes frustrated with her team’s perceived lack of urgency and starts calling on individual teammates to explain their work processes.
A couple of teammates become defensive, and Ginny angrily rejects their explanations. She even dismisses the fact-based reasons that show Ginny herself disregarded the original deadline estimates and defined an overly ambitious project deadline on her own.
After the meeting, the team goes back to work.
They may work with more focus in the future, but they now feel wary of Ginny and are reluctant to ask for help in the future — even if they think that they need to.
Top solutions for overcoming problems with anger
The fundamental solution to handling anger while communicating is removing yourself from the problematic situation until you can manage and respond to it appropriately.
Preferably, you should do this before you snap at someone. Then, once you’ve calmed yourself and collected your thoughts, address the matter again.
This time, think clearly about what you want to say before you say it, and refrain from making potentially hurtful comments.
Emotional barrier #2: Pride
Pride is an emotional barrier that inhibits healthy communication in several ways.
For one, pride as an emotion implies you take pride in what you say and do. When this feeling gets the better of you, you might talk more than you listen — and active listening is an essential skill of effective communicators.
As a result, teammates become wary of inviting you to brainstorming sessions — because your idea always needs to be the best one, or else you become difficult to work with.
Example of a communication barrier based on pride
Are you unsure how pride could impede successful teamwork and collaboration? To get more insight, we’ll turn to Oliver, a social media marketer at a marketing agency.
At every brainstorming session, he is the loudest when presenting his ideas. He is quick to dismiss the opinions of others with methodical flair.
His accomplishments are celebrated the longest, and he never makes mistakes (at least, not mistakes he owns up to).
Consequently, his teammates have come to dread daily meetings. They tend to let Oliver talk and often feel unmotivated to outtalk him. This dreary cycle continues, even if they have something important to say or ask.
Top solutions for overcoming problems with pride
Pride is arguably one of the most challenging communication barriers to overcome because it leads us to believe we’re always in the right. However, when we take a step back and cool off, we quickly realize that no opinion is infallible, not even our own.
Work on accepting that your statements may not always be perfect — or even correct. And, don’t be afraid to admit to your mistakes instead of investing all your efforts into persuading others that you are not at fault.
If you have a particular emotional insecurity, don’t try to compensate for it with a false sense of superiority. Instead, identify the cause of your insecurities and try to address them. Thanks to these efforts, people will feel more at ease when communicating with you.
Emotional barrier #3: Anxiety
Anxiety is another emotional barrier to effective communication that can diminish the efficacy of your communication skills.
This emotion prevents you from becoming an effective communicator by eating away at your concentration. Instead of paying attention to others, you become increasingly preoccupied with what you want to say.
Moreover, anxiety may push you to avoid certain social situations and save yourself from embarrassment or difficult conversations, even in a professional setting.
Example of a communication barrier based on anxiety
Let’s delve deeper into how anxiety can generate persistent fear and worry and stop us from putting our best foot forward in the workplace.
That’s exactly what it does to Daniel, an HR specialist in charge of recruiting, screening, interviewing, and onboarding workers.
At the end of each month, he attends a meeting with the head of the HR department, the CEO, and the leaders of other departments. During this meeting, they discuss his progress with the job positions they’ve requested.
Daniel’s talent with most tasks is noteworthy. But, his meeting anxiety creeps up each time he needs to attend the said monthly meeting.
Due to his situational anxiety, he often forgets to highlight his accomplishments and struggles to articulate answers to the audience’s questions. Although his achievements are commendable, his less-than-confident presentations make people question his capacity to handle his HR duties and grow in the future.
Top solutions for overcoming problems with anxiety
Overcoming problems with anxiety is easier said than done, but there are ways you can try to keep the fear and worry at bay.
First, look into relaxation exercises and see whether meditation or breathwork can help you cope with stressful situations.
Also, consider why you feel anxious under certain circumstances— weigh down your reasons and decide whether they are worth the worries.
Finally, consult a medical professional for specialized advice if you have a more generalized anxiety problem.
Cultural barriers to effective team communication + solutions
According to Joynt & Warner (1996), culture is “the pattern of taken-for-granted assumptions about how a given collection of people should think, act, and feel as they go about their daily affairs.”
In line with this definition, cultural barriers to communication represent the different culture-related behavior patterns that may arise as obstacles to well-balanced communication among teammates.
These culture-related behavior patterns may revolve around:
- Nonverbal language, and
- Cultural norms, beliefs, and values.
They may also manifest as:
- Stereotypes or
- Status-based self-importance.
Cultural barrier #1: Language
Language barriers to communication can be detrimental, especially for teams across the globe. After all, it’s not uncommon to find people with different native languages in remote-first organizations.
For all their benefits, work-from-anywhere initiatives bring a unique set of drawbacks because if you don’t understand your teammates and they don’t understand you, communication breaks down.
Example of a communication barrier based on language
We’ve already discussed how physical barriers like time and distance prevent teams from collaborating smoothly. Now, what happens when you add a language barrier to the mix?
In a software development team, the manager notices persistent communication issues. Namely, two team members are French-Canadian and much better at speaking their minds in French than English.
However, the remaining two teammates are from the UK, and English is their mother tongue. Worried about the direction the team is heading, the manager holds an emergency meeting, where the group realizes that they have one language in common: French.
The manager took advanced French courses in university, and the coworkers from the UK got their degrees in Paris.
Because of this, the team decides to use French for all official correspondence.
Top solutions for problems with language
As evidenced by the example above, the top solution for overcoming the communication barrier of different languages is to identify the language the entire team is comfortable communicating in.
Once you do, define it as the official team language. Then, all official correspondence between team members should be handled in the selected language.
Cultural barrier #2: Nonverbal language
We already discussed nonverbal language when addressing the perceptual barriers to effective communication.
However, nonverbal language can also be connected with the speaker’s culture. The same gestures or facial expressions can have different meanings in different cultures.
In such cases, we regard nonverbal language as a crucial culture-based communication barrier.
Example of a nonverbal language challenge (as a cultural barrier)
Let’s look at a software development team with members from different cultural backgrounds.
During a video meeting, the group encounters a nonverbal language challenge. The team lead, Olivia, from Wales, accidentally mutes her microphone while Nicholas, a QA specialist from Greece, presents a new feature.
When Nicholas asks for Olivia’s approval, she nods her head once and gives a thumbs-up gesture. However, this unintentionally unnerves the team members from Greece, Turkey, and Bangladesh.
Olivia is unaware that a single nod signifies “No” in Greece and Turkey, and in Bangladesh, a thumbs-up is considered offensive.
It takes some time for Olivia to explain her intended meaning and bridge the communication gap caused by cultural differences.
Top solutions for problems with nonverbal language
The best way to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings caused by these cultural differences is to learn about the nonverbal communication patterns of your teammates.
Ask if they’re comfortable sharing about their culture and beliefs so that you gain further context. And, if your company offers such programs, pay attention to cross-cultural training.
Cultural barrier #3: Cultural norms, beliefs, and values
Each culture holds its own cultural norms, beliefs, and values. These are shared standards within a given culture, as well as human behaviors that support them. Consequently, these behaviors are met with social approval or disapproval.
Holidays, religions, customs, signs of respect, and even rules for proper business conduct may differ from culture to culture.
As a result, people from different cultures may struggle to communicate effectively because they might perceive the behavior of their fellow communicators as unusual, uncomfortable, or simply disrespectful.
Of course, this is rarely the intention of the communicators, who have merely made an honest mistake.
Example of a communication barrier based on cultural norms, beliefs, and values
Cultural differences can bring us together with our teammates. But, without sufficient clarification, they can make professional situations uncomfortable and act as communication barriers.
Unfortunately, that’s how it turned out for Irene, an intern from Norway working in a firm in San Francisco.
She requested a day off on “Independence Day” and Catherine, her coordinator, approved it.
However, they failed to clarify which Independence Day — Irene celebrates Norway’s on May 17th, not the US’s on July 4th. Consequently, the mishap led to Irene missing work and a scheduling problem.
Top solutions for problems with cultural norms, beliefs, and values
Bridging cultural gaps is a top priority for global teams dedicated to achieving lasting success. To make sure everyone feels valued and comfortable, consider:
- Strengthening your soft skills,
- Checking in with colleagues regularly,
- Attending cross-cultural training, and
- Keeping an open mind on diverse perspectives.
Cultural barrier #4: Stereotypes
According to social psychology, a stereotype represents a “fixed, over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.”
In other words, we have a particular idea about how a specific group or class of people think or behave — and we assume that every member of that group or class thinks or acts similarly.
Such an approach to people who belong to different cultures builds prejudices and stops us from viewing members from other cultures as unique individuals.
Stereotypes come in different forms, but the most common ones that are disruptive to effective communication are:
- Biases, and
One particular source of stereotypes and prejudices is ethnocentrism.
According to the classic definition by Melville J. Herskovits, ethnocentrism represents “a feeling of superiority regarding one’s own culture or way of life.”
For ethnicism to arise, there must be an “in-group” and an “out-group.”
Social theorist Theodore W. Adorno and his colleagues have created a broader definition that defines ethnocentrism as a combination of “a positive attitude toward one’s own ethnic/cultural group (the in-group) with a negative attitude toward the other ethnic/cultural group (the out-group).”
For people with this type of outlook, it’s always “us” against “them,” which minimizes the effectiveness of many communication situations.
Example of a communication barrier based on stereotypes
A common type of stereotyping is based on generational prejudices.
In the modern workplace, exercising empathy ensures that such prejudices don’t get in the way of teamwork. However, when we don’t work on overcoming unconscious biases, they can lead to escalating microaggressions and the development of team silos.
Like Finn and Milo in the following example, we may hesitate to give older colleagues a chance to prove us wrong.
Finn and Milo are two new graduates who’ve just got jobs as production assistants at a bank. The majority of their colleagues are much older than them.
Finn and Milo believe the older generation is “out of touch, inflexible, and closed-minded to new ideas,” labeling their colleagues “Boomers.”
When their colleagues oppose their innovative solutions in meetings or dislike the use of new apps, it only reinforces Finn and Milo’s preconceived notions. Consequently, they take little notice when their older teammates support their ideas.
Top solutions for culture-based stereotypes
You can start embracing diversity and combating culture-based stereotypes by reconfiguring your perceptions.
If you’re part of a diverse workforce, go the extra mile and start a conversation with colleagues you haven’t spoken to that much.
Once you break the ice, it’ll be much easier to learn who they are and the central values of their culture. This way, you’ll relate to them more fully and better understand your mutual interdependence in the workplace.
Sharon Salzberg, a mindfulness coach and author of Real Happiness at Work, also emphasizes this idea:
“We find ourselves filled with a new sense of responsibility toward the quality of our experience and its impact on others. The shift of awareness from ‘me’ to ‘we’ set the stage for a whole new life at work.”
Another way to remove these barriers is by calling out stereotyping when you see it. For example, don’t be afraid to speak up if you notice two colleagues speaking insensitively about another teammate.
Such seemingly minor actions stack up and positively impact the development of a well-connected workforce. Remember that advocating for your coworkers is as equally important as self-advocacy at work.
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For a detailed look at cross-cultural communication and useful tips on how to improve it, check out this blog post:
Cultural barrier #5: Status
The perceived importance of someone’s status can also pose a culturally-based communication barrier.
Namely, workers accustomed to workplaces where seniority and status take precedence may find it challenging to adapt to workplaces that favor a more fluid work environment with less strict rules.
But, the opposite may also be true. For example, a worker used to a workplace where teammates are encouraged to treat each other as equals might have trouble navigating a workplace with a prominent hierarchy and rules.
Example of a communication barrier based on status
While rules can optimize a company’s internal organization, rigid regulations can send a message to employees that besides status, little else matters.
In the below example, Arya, who has landed a new job as a product manager, has ample experience working in such companies. Consequently, she has difficulty adjusting to a more relaxed environment in her new role.
Arya used to work in a company where hierarchy was strictly followed, and people had to be formal and wait to be spoken to by senior staff. She had many formal meetings with her subordinates.
However, her new company has a different culture where individual contributions matter more than titles, and people communicate and collaborate freely regardless of their position. Arya finds it hard to adjust to this new culture, as she is used to being treated as someone of higher rank.
She struggles to chat with junior staff and maintain a friendly relationship with them.
Top solutions for problems with status
Status in the workplace largely depends on an organization’s structure and internal policy.
Although a role is vital to business proceedings and grants an employee a lot of power, others may not necessarily regard it as a high-status role. This disparity may lead to job dissatisfaction and, in the worst-case scenario, workplace conflicts.
So, rather than going against rules of conduct just because they are not what you’re used to, learn to adapt to changes in how workplaces function.
Remember to do your best to adapt to the new atmosphere when you go from a rule-based workplace to a more relaxed work environment or vice versa.
You can even talk about this with someone from HR to help smoothen the transition.
Language barriers to effective team communication + solutions
Language barriers represent characteristics of linguistic use that inhibit comprehension and thus prevent successful communication. Although we associate miscommunication issues with communicators who have a different native language, they may arise even if the communicators have the same mother tongue.
Language barriers to effective communication usually result from:
- Regional accents and dialects,
- Pidgin languages,
- Word choice, and
- Literacy and linguistic ability.
Language barrier #1: Regional accents and dialects
Team members may have the same mother tongue but also speak in different regional accents and dialects. This can cause comprehension issues, as teammates could use different pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
Example of a communication barrier based on regional accents and dialects
In teams where all members have English as their mother tongue, most people wouldn’t expect to find many instances of miscommunication and miscomprehension.
However, if the members come from both the US and the UK, regional differences in language use can pose a problem.
For example, when a product team with US and UK employees organizes an on-site meeting, the organizer states they’ll hold the session on “the first floor of the building.” For the organizer and the rest of the US employees, the “first floor” is the floor at street level.
But, for teammates from the UK, the “first floor” is the floor above street level.
A simple question would clear away any second thoughts, yet many attendees feel uncomfortable and too embarrassed to ask for further clarification. Consequently, the organization encounters workflow issues, and employees waste valuable time searching for the meeting on the wrong floors.
Language barrier #2: Pidgin languages
According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, pidgin languages, along with creoles, are language varieties formed from two or more languages. These new varieties have a simpler grammatical structure and smaller vocabulary than regular languages.
Additionally, they grow out of necessity when two or more groups of people speak different languages but need to communicate on a regular basis.
Pidgin languages may represent a barrier to effective communication when the standard meaning of pidgin expressions is unclear to all communicators.
For example, a common universal form of pidgin is acronyms. But, visual representations like emojis can also serve as a pictorial pidgin language.
Using acronyms and emojis in pidgin may give rise to a communication roadblock if some group members share a different meaning for the same emojis and acronyms.
Example of a communication barrier based on pidgin languages
Pidgins are legitimate language varieties, and clearing up a communication mishap is typically done quickly. Still, using specific phrases can cause a temporary communication break, as seen in the below example with Tok Pisin.
Fay is an art director heading a program that organizes educational, extracurricular activities for high school and college students. Although she’s spent most of her career in the US, she was born in Papua New Guinea, so some pidgin wording occasionally finds its way into her daily communication.
When informing one of her coworkers they should visit the local college for an upcoming art event, she tells them they should visit the “big school.” She’s not wrong since many Tok Pisin speakers call universities “big schools.”
Yet, Fay’s coworker is unaware of this and is unsure whether Fay meant they should visit a high school or college.
Language barrier #3: Jargon
Jargon represents words and phrases used by a particular group of people (e.g., people in a specific industry or field of work).
Jargon is often difficult to understand for those outside of the group because it is laden with:
- Technical terms,
- Acronyms, and
Furthermore, the overuse of jargon can lead to:
- Lack of understanding,
- Lack of collaboration, and
- Feelings of exclusion.
Example of a communication barrier based on jargon
For employees working with professionals from different industries, jargon can become one of the top reasons for unclear communication.
For instance, a doctor who contacts a financial advisor about settling a patient’s medical bill may slip into their usual way of expression.
The doctor uses medical terms such as “sub-therapeutic,” “agonal,” and “iatrogenic.”
On the flip side, the financial adviser uses financial terms such as “active-participant status,” “advance,” and “life annuity.” Neither can fully understand the other and what was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting drags on for over an hour.
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Language barrier #4: Slang
Slang is a type of informal language, and such expressions are traditionally tied to a specific region, community, or social group.
Slang consists of unconventional phrases, idioms, and vocabulary, usually absent from standardized dictionaries. These expressions can bring people together and foster a sense of belonging.
Yet, in cases where not all parties are familiar with slang expressions, it can lead to communication rifts.
Example of a communication barrier based on slang
Slang varies from language to language, and when two coworkers have a different mother tongue, they may be unable to grasp the meaning of each other’s regional slang.
To see how that plays out in practice, we’ll look at Jeffrey, who is talking to Jannine, a sales representative from France.
During their conversation, Jeffrey, the CEO of an American pharmaceutical company, praises Jannine for her impressive sales record.
To express his delight, he exclaims, “Get outta here!”.
Unfortunately, English is not Jeanne’s first language, and she took the expression literally. Thinking that Jeffrey was angry and didn’t believe her sales figures, she hastily left his office.
Language barrier #5: Word choice
Problems with word choice may arise if you use:
- Homophones, which are words that share the same pronunciation as other words but have different meanings. Problems with homophones may occur in verbal communication. A common homophone set includes the words there, their, and they’re.
- Homographs, which are words that share the same spelling as other words but have different pronunciations and meanings. Problems with homographs may arise in written communication. A common set of homographs consists of the past tense of the verb see (saw) and the noun saw (a tool used for cutting wood).
Example of a communication barrier based on word choice
If you’re not careful, your word choice can sometimes give coworkers the wrong impression. In those cases, you may end up as the person in the below example.
At lunch, a colleague mentions they want to “right the wrong expressions” in a report by Lexie. However, other colleagues interpret it as wanting to “write” the wrong expressions, which would be spiteful.
Language barrier #6: Literacy and linguistic ability
Issues with literacy and linguistic ability represent the problems that might arise due to grammar and vocabulary differences.
These issues may be especially prominent if the person is trying to communicate in a language that is not their mother tongue.
But, they may also be the result of typos.
Example of a communication barrier based on literacy and linguistic ability
In teams whose members come from different linguistic backgrounds, things like date grammar can lead to misinterpretation.
In such a scenario, Alan, who works in HR at a local school, asks Gabriella, a new Italian teacher, to send him some documents by 06/07/2021.
However, Gabriella doesn’t know that in the United States, this date means June 7th, not July 6th, as it does in Italy.
As a result, she misunderstands the message and has a false deadline in mind.
Top solutions for overcoming language barriers to effective communication
Effective communication can be challenging when language barriers are present. Here are some top solutions to help smooth out such issues:
- Keep it simple: Use straightforward and concise language a broader audience can easily understand.
- Use visuals: Incorporate diagrams, charts, or images to support written or verbal communication.
- Ask for feedback: Encourage feedback to ensure understanding and address any potential misunderstandings promptly.
- Be culturally sensitive: Recognize and respect cultural differences in communication styles, non-verbal cues, and social norms.
- Foster a supportive environment: Create an atmosphere that encourages respectful communication.
- Promote diversity: Building diverse teams with individuals from various language backgrounds can foster a collaborative environment where people learn from each other’s linguistic and cultural diversity.
Gender barriers to effective team communication + solutions
In recent years, workplace equity initiatives have helped many employees access new opportunities, regardless of gender or background. However, these policies serve to minimize conflict and motivate employees, not resolve miscommunication troubles altogether.
Thus, we still see communication issues stemming from gender differences, which may be a result of societal values or cultural norms.
Whatever the case, one of the most common gender barriers to communication is stereotyping. Preconceived notions can significantly impact how we view people, compelling us to link particular behavior and traits to gender differences.
These stereotypes can infringe on a person’s authenticity, preventing them from expressing themselves freely in the workplace.
Example of a communication barrier based on gender biases and stereotyping
Not only can gender biases contribute to a hostile work environment, but they can also create rifts between members of a team. If the tension persists, it might even have a long-lasting impact on employee mental health.
But, how exactly do gender differences make team members disconnected? To learn more, we’ll turn to Charles, Peter, and Ainsley.
Charles, an ambulance driver, talks with Peter, an emergency medical technician, about their colleagues at the hospital. However, they exclude their female colleague, Ainsley, because they think she gossips too much.
This treatment makes Ainsley feel she can’t trust Charles and Peter since they don’t include her in their conversations.
Top solutions for overcoming gender barriers to effective team communication
Here are some steps you can take to tackle gender-based biases and stereotypes in a professional setting:
- Educate the team: Identify and acknowledge any biases and stereotypes that may be present. Do your best to encourage open and honest discussions about these topics and ensure everyone understands how they can contribute to positive change.
- Encourage diversity: When making decisions, involve everyone in the discussion and seek feedback from all team members. These actions will help ensure that diverse perspectives are considered and valued.
- Support the HR team: When dealing with gender-based issues, it’s crucial to have a well-prepared team that will handle them respectfully and effectively. Ensure your HR team has the training and resources they need to address these problems tactfully.
Interpersonal barriers to effective communication + solutions
Interpersonal barriers to effective communication stop people from reaching their full potential by restricting communication skills.
They may manifest as an inability to listen to others attentively or maintain the attention of the people you want to communicate with.
The reason for these communication problems mainly stems from a:
- Lack of participation and
- Lack of open-mindedness.
Interpersonal barrier #1: A lack of desire to participate in communication
A crucial interpersonal barrier to effective communication is a lack of a desire to participate in communication situations at the workplace.
Often, others will feel frustrated while trying to communicate with people who don’t want to interact with them.
Example of a communication barrier based on a lack of desire to participate
A lot of the time, it’s not that your coworker is avoiding interacting with you. It could be just that they’re not used to the communication model the company uses. However, this perceived lack of desire to engage in conversation can have dire consequences on team morale.
Let’s take John, an enterprise sales specialist at a company that builds software solutions, as an example.
An essential part of his duties is to conduct calls with prospective clients. But, he often needs the assistance of the software development team to answer technical questions.
However, rarely anyone from the software development team is enthusiastic about participating in these client calls.
In fact, John often has problems finding people to join him in these calls, which wastes a lot of time on futile persuasion and evasive answers.
Interpersonal barrier #2: A lack of desire to explore new concepts
Another interpersonal barrier to effective communication is a lack of a desire to explore new ideas and opinions.
Closed-minded coworkers can make brainstorming sessions difficult and uncreative. Moreover, they frustrate teammates looking to dive deeper into new concepts.
Example of a communication barrier based on a lack of desire to explore new concepts
No matter how much you excel at your job, being stuck in your ways doesn’t make you a good team player. And, that’s precisely the case with Michael, a senior product designer at a product design studio.
He is experienced and renowned for his work ethic but dreaded at brainstorming meetings.
He shoots down every idea and opinion different from what he knows, even if it has great potential.
As a result, the team doesn’t look forward to meeting with him. They know he will always try to confine them to his old ways of thinking.
Top solutions for overcoming interpersonal barriers to effective communication
Overcoming interpersonal barriers to effective communication requires a range of tactics. Here are 3 key strategies you can try:
- Expand your horizons: To overcome reservations towards new concepts in meetings and brainstorming sessions, venture beyond typical business communication situations. You can explore new ideas on your own by reading about relevant findings. Additionally, challenge your previous knowledge and embrace the possibility that what you once believed may not hold up today.
- Step out of your comfort zone: To combat reluctance in communication, make a conscious effort to engage more frequently. Push yourself to participate in various communication situations, whether it’s actively contributing to meetings, asking questions during onboarding, or taking the lead in resolving conflicts between colleagues. The more you engage, the more comfortable you’ll become, paving the way for future communication success.
- Offer constructive feedback: Teammates can also play a crucial role in helping others overcome communication barriers. If you notice a colleague who seems aloof or hesitant, provide them with constructive feedback. Help them improve their approach to communication, collaboration, and overall work. You can contribute to a more communicative and productive team environment by offering support and guidance.
Remember that effective communication is a valuable skill you can develop through consistent effort and a willingness to break old patterns.
By implementing these tactics, you’ll be well on your way to achieving greater success in interacting with others and fostering solid work relationships.
Organizational barriers to effective communication + solutions
Sometimes, despite the employees’ willingness to become better communicators, they run into roadblocks in the form of organizational barriers.
These issues severely limit the flow of information within an organization, preventing people from getting urgent information on time.
The primary causes of organizational barriers include:
- Strict structure and rigid hierarchy,
- Lack of transparency, and
- Lack of communication channels.
Organizational barrier #1: Strict organizational structure and rigid hierarchies
In companies where leadership is inaccessible, meaningful interactions may become few and far between. Consequently, managers are urgently looking for the information their teams desperately need to complete their work.
This may work as a short-term solution, but eventually, it creates a mistrust of leadership and a culture where employees are reluctant to speak up.
The absence of open dialogue means the employee input gets lost because workers believe leadership isn’t interested in hearing them out. Besides, in such environments, employees often feel ill-equipped to deal with the possible repercussions.
Example of a communication barrier based on strict organizational structure and frigid hierarchies
How do rigid hierarchies prevent the effective exchange of ideas within an organization? To better answer this question, we’ll join a quarterly meeting at a software development firm.
Josh is a software developer whose team has regular monthly and weekly meetings. The members talk with each other about their progress and ask their manager about future steps and further guidance.
However, only the top executives and a few managers lead the conversation at the quarterly meetings. The few times John and his team have tried to suggest product improvements, they’ve been promptly shut down.
Due to these unpleasant experiences, John does not want to speak up at the upcoming meeting, although his idea about product improvements is objectively great.
Top solutions for problems with strict organizational structure and frigid hierarchies
Organizations facing communication issues due to a strict internal structure can improve operations through:
- Flattening hierarchies: Companies should try flattening internal hierarchies by moving part of the decision-making process to include more employees. Not only does this engender inclusivity, but it also fosters a feeling of professional autonomy.
- Promoting cross-level collaboration: When employees from different teams and hierarchical levels work together to achieve a shared goal, they develop stronger relationships. Consequently, they learn about each other’s abilities, build greater trust, and acquire new perspectives. All of this contributes to greater job satisfaction and enhanced productivity levels.
- Developing better feedback channels: Quarterly performance assessments, one-on-one meetings, and employee surveys are just a few possible ways businesses can take note of employee feedback. Workers who readily express their concerns and thoughts aid their employers in creating a positive professional environment.
Organizational barrier #2: Lack of transparency
In the modern workplace, a culture of transparency is one of the key ingredients for running a successful business.
Improving upward communication or resolving problems with lateral communication is impossible without transparency. Organizations that put a lot of value on transparency encourage employees to exchange information across different levels, which in turn makes them more:
- Trustworthy and
Yet, the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer survey shows that most workers lack faith in their employers. Furthermore, the survey highlighted that 1 in 3 respondents stated they don’t trust their employer.
The absence of transparent communication can have long-term consequences on business operations, including:
- Lower engagement and motivation levels,
- Employees who are reluctant to self-advocate at work, and
- Higher turnover rates.
Example of a communication barrier based on a lack of transparency
Without transparency, employees have limited access to vital resources and expected outcomes, making it challenging to develop a feasible work strategy.
For example, Jacob, a team lead of a software development team in a tech company, is left in the dark after a few new stakeholders have joined the organization. He’s heard whispers that the company may head in a different direction, but each time he asks leadership for clarification, he’s told he’ll be informed in due time.
However, a few months have already passed, and Jacob’s team is frustrated with the runaround they’ve received. This puts him in an uncomfortable position because his hands are tied, and he feels bad for being unable to alleviate his team’s concerns.
Had the company taken steps to overcome barriers to communication, leadership would be more in tune with how the employees feel.
Top solutions for lack of transparency
Fostering a culture of transparency takes time and effort, and there are several practices businesses can implement to achieve this goal. Some of the ways you can do so are by:
- Providing adequate training and education: Communication is a skill, and not every professional starts out as an effective communicator. But, through workshops, seminars, and team-building activities, they can acquire the tools and skills that will allow them to excel in transparent communication.
- Being open about decision-making processes and strategies: Make sure that employees fully understand the organization’s core values and principles. Whenever there is a new initiative or practice, a company-wide meeting can help prevent teams from feeling like they’re left out of the decision-making process.
- Being clear about performance assessments: Taking employees through every step of their performance review is crucial to maintaining transparent communication. It ensures workers understand how and why their achievements contribute to the bigger picture and helps them better relate to strategic goals.
Organizational barrier #3: Lack of communication channels
Employee effort goes to waste if communication channels are insufficient or lacking.
For example, knowledge sharing is quicker and easier for teams that rely on video conferencing. However, when the organization adamantly insists on using an unsuitable communication channel, much of the information can get lost in the shuffle.
As a result, we see:
- Missed opportunities,
- Lack of timely feedback,
- Mistakes and miscommunication, and
- Dissatisfied customers.
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Example of a communication barrier based on a lack of communication channels
Without clear and well-established communication pathways, no team can thrive for long, and coworkers feel isolated and disconnected.
But, how does this come about?
In the case of Thomas, an app developer working in a big tech company, his team has been struggling for weeks to solve a bug that’s been a problem for months. After much trial and error, he finally found the solution.
Yet, his happiness is short-lived. As his team has no central platform for communication and collaboration, informing his manager and coworkers about the breakthrough is a game of telephone, and no one seems to understand his urgency.
Finally, the manager tells Thomas to wait until the monthly team meeting to tell everyone about his progress. Thomas is deflated since this means other employees will have to work around the bug until he presents his solution.
Top solutions for lack of communication channels
Although a lack of communication channels can bring about a wide array of trouble for an organization, these steps can prevent long-term issues:
- Implementing new communication channels: User-friendly and intuitive team communication apps can unite all employees. Whether they prefer to come into the office or work remotely, they’ll know the person they need to contact is just a few clicks away. Also, project management tools can further optimize workflows by providing an overview of urgent and long-term tasks and goals.
- Holding regular meetings: In teams whose workflow involves dynamic and complex tasks, weekly team meetings and occasional one-on-one meetings prevent feelings of loneliness and the development of team silos.
- Providing comprehensive communication training: Workshops on active listening, communication planning, and business communication can help employees tackle different situations during their workday.
Wrapping up: Overcoming communication barriers is a collaborative effort
No team can be successful without good communication, but sometimes several barriers may prevent us from reaching our goals.
For example, you might not understand someone seated far away from you. Or, you could misunderstand what someone is trying to say. It’s also possible that you don’t want to admit when you’re wrong.
Additionally, cultural differences or gender stereotypes can be a problem too.
But, panic and worry won’t get you anywhere if you’re determined to learn how to overcome communication barriers.
Tackling these challenges requires teamwork because only when we work together to better ourselves can we become stronger and get more done.
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