Workplace Communication Breakdowns – How HR Can Help

Every year, there are new ways to communicate with customers and employees — letters, emails, texts, instant messages, chat apps. As of April 2016, around the world 4.46 billion users are active on the top 10 messaging apps1. All of these are opportunities for organizations to communicate effectively in order to achieve their corporate objectives. These communication tools are being developed faster than we can keep up with, leaving us to question if the quality of our communication has improved at a similar rate.

Organizations see a great deal of communication breakdowns which result in misunderstandings, reduced productivity and costly errors. Take the healthcare industry for example. Medical errors, especially those caused by a failure to communicate is ranked as the 5th top reason for causes of death by Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCHAO) in the United States2. A survey conducted online by Refresh leadership captured what people think are the most common causes for workplace communication breakdowns. The results are shown below3.

Causes of Workplace ...

Poor leadership and unclear goals form 52% of the reason people think workplace communication breakdowns happen. Executives in organizations and in leadership positions are routinely given training for public speaking and ways to effectively communicate their vision, ideas and future plans. It is a great way for a lot of management professionals to increase their influence and persuasion to get buy in from customers, colleagues and senior management. But even with all of the training, leaders are still struggling with how to effectively communicate in the workplace.

Communication breakdown is a sign of ineffective employee management:

In many organizations, the reasons for communication breakdowns include:

In order to overcome the missing pieces of information and direction employees face, they turn to emails, texts and the plethora of messaging apps that technology vendors provide. Unfortunately, it has become common in organizations to have long email chains with unclear requests, inquiries or instructions within the messages. The timing of responses to questions, inquiries and follow-ups have become compromised resulting in loss of prioritization. Some people respond to every message instantly, making them lose focus on a particular task while others never get back to the sender resulting in frustration and assignment delivery delays.

How HR can help:

  1. Set expectations: Use the Onboarding process to set the stage for the organization’s expectations when it comes to communication. Perhaps you have written policies you can point to or examples you can share of productive use of the communication tools available.
  2. Setting up business processes: Each of the above barriers can easily be avoided by putting proper business processes and authority structures in place that provide clarity to employees about their role in the organization and who they report to in different circumstances.
  3. Culture for Collaboration: Using messaging apps is great for yes/no answers or where links need to be shared, however anything that needs explanation should either be a phone or face to face conversation. Employees can follow existing rules and protocols and HR can train senior management on these protocols to form a culture where communication occurs in all forms to help teams to collaborate.
  4. Using the right tools and revisiting the way we do work: Work gets done in an organization through assigning people with tasks and providing them with relevant system access and tools to accomplish the strategic goals of the business. Automation of certain tasks through workflow can simplify the communication stream and make sure the right people are involved (and informed) at the right time. If tasks can be automated, there is less need for intervention and communication ‘noise’.

As the one business unit solely responsible for people, HR is in a unique position to transform how people get work done and ensure communication breakdowns don’t come in the way of your organization reaching its strategic goals.

About the Author:

Salma Sultana - Marketing Manager at StarGarden Corporation, Vancouver Salma Sultana is the Marketing Manager at StarGarden Corporation. She has over six years experience working in various roles in Research, System Analysis and Project Management. She holds a MBA from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.


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