Workplace Communication Problems - Ways to Uncover and Solve | Fierce

Solve workplace communication problems

Have you ever stopped yourself to wonder if your company has a communication problem?

Like many people, my siblings and I often text each other and our 81-year-old mother in a group message. What makes this interesting is when our mother relies on voice-to-text to send us messages, due to her poor eyesight. She assumes that her phone has a clear understanding of what she is saying and simply hits “send” without proofreading her message. 

For anyone who has attempted this or has auto-fill/correct on their phone, you likely understand the importance of proofreading messages before sending them. What often follows is a steady stream of texts, with each of us attempting to “translate” what we think our mother said. 

About 40ish messages later, we’ve stopped laughing and the conversation moves on. Sound familiar at all? It’s yet another take on the classic “telephone game”.

The Problem With Workplace Communication

Unfortunately, this very scenario (minus the laughter common amongst siblings) is what often plays out in the corporate environment. A conversation held in a meeting is relayed to others, an email is sent, a notice is posted, and everyone is left to their own interpretation of what was really said.

Or worse yet, a question is asked, no one speaks up, or everyone nods in agreement with the one comment offered, and the leader leaves thinking “we’re all on the same page.” Then they wonder why there is confusion, frustration, lack of direction, and results? Again, sound familiar?

How about feedback. Is it something that is openly offered and asked for? Is it something that you only receive once or twice a year, usually at performance reviews? 

Is most of the feedback you give and receive done at the water cooler (the actual one or the virtual one)? If feedback is not something that is actively shared on a day to day basis, then you know you have a communication problem.

What’s even more frustrating is that this is not something new. Communication problems are not a byproduct of all the immediate changes corporate America had to adapt due to COVID-19. 

This business problem is something that has been plaguing workplaces for as long as there have been workplaces. So how do you fix this? 

Ways to Uncover Workplace Communication Issues

Well, one could take the Thomas Jefferson approach. Legend has it that when they were building the University of Virginia, Jefferson would sit atop Monticello with a telescope in hand and watch the goings-on. When he spotted something that needed changing, he would send one of his hired hands down to the workers with instructions. 

While this ensured clear lines of communication, it was extremely expensive and time-consuming. It’s very likely this is where the term micromanaging originated!

So how do we do it? How do we verify whether there, in fact, is a communication problem? Several different tools have been used, each with positive and negative results. Let’s look at a few of these:

1. Town Halls

This is typically where a top leader addresses a large assembly of workers to update them on the goings-on of the company. Following this update, the leader opens things up to questions from the floor. This is great in theory – IF the organization already has a culture of open communication up and down throughout the company.

2. Anonymous Suggestion Boxes

I’ll stop at the “anonymous” part. If your communication needs to be anonymous, then you have your answer!

3. Employee Engagement Surveys

While these have proven to be effective, you need to spend the time to understand what’s going on and why. 

You need to be analyzing the subjective comments, holding focus groups, summarizing the findings, assigning action items to cross-functional groups and more, all with the hopes that you can quickly employ solutions before the next survey, or before the world presents the next big challenge to your organization.

The Best Way to Solve Workplace Communication Problems

Many have uttered, in frustration, “There has to be a better way!” And they’re right. How about starting with an assessment? If you think about it, most areas where you are attempting to improve begin with an assessment. 

The yearly physical with your doctor begins with a health assessment. Fitness programs start with a fitness assessment, so you know which exercises and specific weights to begin with. 

Most cognitive and behavioral programs begin with an assessment, and so on. So, why shouldn’t the evaluation of your company communication begin with one?

Now let me be clear, the assessment is the beginning, NOT the answer. It can give you valuable insights into strengths, gaps, and where to focus your attention. The findings help to shed light on opportunity areas that you weren’t aware of -like the corporate telephone game. 

What I often see in organizations, and this gets exaggerated the larger the organization is, is the farther down the “food chain” one is, the bigger the gap in effective communication. Why is this? Shouldn’t all of us be on the same page? Shouldn’t we all know where we are going and how we’re going to get there? 

Now I realize there are key strategy pieces and long-term visioning that aren’t practical to share with everyone, especially in publicly traded organizations. That said, the things we all work on in the day-to-day shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

There is certainly no shortage of assessments one can pursue to determine the best fit for their organization. Many organizations are blessed to have talented learning professionals already working for them who can design their own assessments. 

If you are choosing this route, begin with that you want to know, with the end in mind. For example, design your questions to support the notion that your organization is exceptional in this area (My leader regularly updates me on ___, I have a clear understanding of my role, our objectives, I receive regular feedback…) and more. The results will show you where you need to focus your efforts.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Fierce offers two assessments, a Fierce Factor Assessment for individuals, to see where the communication they are having in their head is helping or hurting them, and another for groups (intact teams, departments, or entire organizations). 

Each is a series of questions designed to help in showing how aligned the individual or group actually is. In other words, if there is a large gap in the perspective (or context) of the group, then there is serious work to do in the way the group communicates.

After reviewing the initial results, teams are then instructed to look at each question individually, beginning with the question with the lowest average score. They then lean into the sometimes uncomfortable yet productive conversation around what they can do to improve in this area. 

I’ve yet to see an instance where communication is not improved as a result of this exercise.

So why not do yourself, and everyone else in your organization a favor? Give your communication skills an assessment to see if everyone is on the same page. 

If you find they aren’t, great! Celebrate the fact that NOW you know what needs to be done to avoid the corporate telephone game which almost always results in confusion, frustration, lack of direction, and results.

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