Communication Breakdown

Learn the causes and how to fix communication breakdowns in the workplace. From email to emoji, see the five common issues when it comes to modern communication.

Photos by: Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

Talk is not cheap. Not in business, anyway. 

Bad communication habits can have a costly impact on the bottom line. In fact, 44% of workers believe communication barriers lead to delays or failure to complete projects, according to a 2018 Economist Intelligence Unit survey. Nearly a third also blame communication barriers for low morale, and 18% say it has led to lost sales.

It’s easy to imagine how that happens. Today’s business communication takes so many different forms—slideshow presentations, real-time document editing, video conferencing, phone calls, emails, IMs, texts, chats, town halls, team huddles and more—that many of us develop bad habits despite our best intentions. 

The key to overcoming these habits is for workers and leaders to be more deliberate about how we communicate and for organizations to make good communication a core value.

“The best thing to do to improve communication is to set more explicit expectations about communication,” says Art Markman, executive director of the IC2 Institute, an entrepreneurship think tank at The University of Texas at Austin. 

Finding ways to be better heard, and to hear others better—whether you’re speaking, writing or tossing out emojis—can make work both easier and more fulfilling. There’s no single approach to achieve that outcome, but here are five bad communication habits and how to break them. 

1. Not actively listening

Why are communication problems so common at work? There’s a simple reason, says Phil Stella, president of the consultancy Effective Training & Communication: “We’re all poor listeners.”

People listen in two ways. They hear the voice that’s speaking to them, and they hear the conversation they’re having with themselves. Stella suggests trying to quiet your own internal conversation by using frequent questions to make sure you’re hearing a speaker correctly and occasionally summarizing what is being said. “Actually saying to someone else, ‘I hear you’ is lame,” he says. “Showing them you’re listening is better.” 

That may take a physical form—nodding your head, for instance—or verbal form. If a co-worker is upset about something, leaders can indicate they’ve heard the problem by reflecting it back with a comment such as, “I see how that situation has been really frustrating.” 

They should also ensure that their perception of what’s being said is actually what the speaker intends. To do this, use statements such as, “I’m getting the sense that” or “Let me check my view of the situation.” 

What leaders and others should not do, Stella says, is simply rehearse their responses while they wait for a speaker to stop talking, or reject outright what the speaker is saying. In short, active listening  requires you to be present whenever you’re communicating with someone else.

2. Not understanding the challenges of modern communication

The Economist Intelligence Unit survey found the vast majority of executives agree that face-to-face communication is the most effective. 

That means our other forms, such as writing, likely need improvement, Stella says. Keep notes on how many times people ask for clarification and in what contexts. If you want to analyze your writing more fully, take an online writing or readability test; popular options include Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the Gunning Fog Index and the Coleman-Liau Index. These tests can reveal how accessible your writing is—the more difficult the reading level, the more likely that your co-workers will misunderstand you as they scan their emails. 

You may also have better luck avoiding misunderstanding through instant messaging, where a smiley face emoji can let someone know you’re pleased. Almost a third of millennials and Gen Xers use instant messaging every day at work, according to the Economist report. But only 12% of baby boomers do the same, and more than a third don’t IM at all. Experts advise workers who are less comfortable with IM to ask colleagues for lessons in the “language” or to try to copy the messaging style of those who seem like savvy users.

Video chats, even though they’re closer to face-to-face conversation, also have some pitfalls. “Often on video chats, we’re looking at our own thumbnail and evaluating ourselves as we’re speaking,” says Janel Anderson, founder of Working Conversations, a communications consulting and training firm. “We don’t do that in person,” she says. “It’s better to look into the camera.”

3. Passive-aggressive communication

The most common form of passive-aggressive communication is when a person signals support for something in a group setting only to criticize it in private, says Anderson, who’s also the author of Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly. If your concerns or criticisms are valid, why not bring them up during the initial meeting or conversation?

She says it is better for co-workers to be direct with what they think in meetings rather than hiding their true thoughts to avoid conflicts or maintain a false sense of camaraderie. “People may think they were being a team player in the meeting, but they aren’t if they haven’t spoken up,” she says.

4. Not owning up to failure

Some leaders are loath to admit when they’ve taken their organizations down the wrong path. When a leader openly communicates their own professional errors, other workers will be more willing to do the same. 

“It’s important to embrace mistakes and use them as learning experiences,” Markman says. 

Try adopting a policy of “showing your scorecard,” Anderson suggests. That scorecard can’t only be wins. “There have to be losses,” she says. “If you can get comfortable with admitting to some losses, you’ll be perceived as a more authentic leader, and people will have an easier time communicating with you.” That’s not to suggest that the scorecard should be all losses either, or that leaders should be self-deprecating to a fault. Anderson says the key is for leaders to simply be willing to own mistakes when they happen.

5. Inability to communicate across silos

Addressing this should be a top-down approach, Anderson says. Create a team of executives who collect and share information about how different divisions are performing as well as how leaders and co-workers in those divisions interact. That information should then be regularly reported back to the CEO, she suggests. “When they do that, other people across the silos will do the same. That sets a tone and has an impact on the culture.”

Markman has a different take. “I’m a fan of using unproductive work times—like Friday after 3 p.m.—for field trips in which one group goes to visit another,” he says. “When people get to know each other, they are much more likely to communicate regularly, and that will pass information across silos within the organization.

Actually saying to someone else, ‘I hear you’ is lame. Showing them you're listening is better.
— Phil Stella
President Effective Training & Communication

Say This Instead


DON’T SAY: But we’ve always done it this way.

SAY: This is a novel approach. How would we make it work?


DON’T SAY: No, we’ve already tried that. 

SAY: Could you suggest some other approaches?


DON’T SAY: Keep up the good work. 

SAY: I like how you’ve handled [something specific].


DON’T SAY: I don’t have time. 

SAY: Let’s set up a meeting for another time.


DON’T SAY: This might be a dumb idea. 

SAY: I have a thought.


DON’T SAY: Sure, I can get to that. 

SAY: I’ll be able to do that by the end of the week.


DON’T SAY: That’s impossible. 

SAY: I can’t accomplish this in the time frame you’re asking for.


DON’T SAY: Are we clear? 

SAY: Does this make sense to you?

Which kind of communicator are you? 


The Number Cruncher

Your communication style: You like to have facts and figures be the driving force in conversations at work. You also like business communication to be specific and focused on bottom-line outcomes. 

Bad habit to break: Sometimes you devalue conversations with co-workers when they talk about the “softer” elements of work: emotions and human connections.

You are: Analytical

The Visionary

Your communication style: You want to talk about the broad strokes of moving the organization forward or executing on new plans.

Bad habit to break: You sometimes lack an understanding of the details on a project or the organization’s day-to-day operations. That could make you lean too often, and too hard, on others to explain specifics.

You are: Intuitive

The People Person

Your communication style: Relationships matter to you. So does the personal development and happiness of those around you. 

Bad habit to break: You may find yourself going too easy on team members or work groups who others believe aren’t performing.

You are: Personal

The Project Manager

Your communication style: You like business conversations to focus on the process for moving ahead, the who-is-going-to-do-what-and-when details.

Bad habit to break: Don’t get frustrated because not everyone has your command of organizational process. Take the time to explain processes many times and in different ways.

You are: Functional