A business owner I know called me up a few weeks ago to complain about a team disruption that made him angry. He’d assigned two teammates to travel together to a conference nearly three hours away. To avoid the early-morning rush hour, the three had agreed it would be best for the two traveling to hit the road by 5:30 a.m. By 5:45, after not being able to reach the other teammate, one took off for the conference. Both people ended up driving separately and wasting company money.
“Wait,” I said. “When did the second teammate show up? Why didn’t she respond to the first person, who was trying to reach her? Why are they being punished equally?”
The truth was, no matter how annoying it was that the company paid for two trips to the conference, that the second person dropped the ball on communication. It turned out she showed up more than 30 minutes late, without an explanation or an update. The communication breakdown began with her, and that’s what he needed to fix.
A look into 400 companies with 100,000 employees found that each of those companies lost, on average, $62.4 million annually because of poor communication. Smaller companies may not drive enough revenue to lose such big sums, but that means that the cost of miscommunication affects their bottom line more acutely.
The Economist Intelligence Unit reported in 2018 that nearly half of the 403 executives it surveyed experienced delayed or failed projects, with mid-level managers taking the brunt of the fallout from bad communication throughout their companies. Furthermore, companies led by executives with effective communication skills provide much higher returns to shareholders.
Why do we tolerate bad communication, then? One reason is that the technology and tools that empower us to get our work done are the same ones that often lead our communication astray. How many nuances are lost via email every day? How many offices host people who live and die by Slack — and others who refuse to use it?
Another reason is that we let leaders — a.k.a ourselves — off the hook. We justify our lack of communication or lack of clarity by pointing out how busy we are. Time is money, after all, and it’s much cheaper to let other teammates figure it out than pause what we’re doing. But this mentality not only hurts communication; it also damages employee retention and happiness.
So how do you know your team’s communication is not optimal? Here’s six signs your team’s communication is breaking down.
I once walked into a conference room to two employees unintentionally reenacting the “Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?” scene from Rush Hour. When co-workers have resorted to screaming at each other to feel heard, things have gone south. Don’t accept this as a “communication style.”
More subtle than shouting, keep an eye out for silence. If employees refuse to talk to one another — or, worse, cliques are giving each other the silent treatment — that’s a sign that people are making their own calls. They’re not considering other teammates or factors that could critically impact your company.
We all have at least one employee who jumps the gun, unable to wait for others to finish. If you sense frustration building because people aren’t able to make themselves heard, that’s not your imagination. They need and want the floor, and their lack of ability to talk dilutes all your diversity-of-thought efforts.
Unless they have a great poker face, most people’s facial expressions reveal their true feelings, regardless of what they’re saying. If you see eye-rolling, flinching, drooping faces, or stony expressions, those are signs that people are only telling you part of the story — they don’t feel psychologically safe.
Brainstorming sessions should result in numerous options to consider. If you have few possible solutions or a lack of agreement on the end goal, those are real problems. A less obvious problem is if people negate others’ feelings during these problem-solving sessions, asking them to be positive or to ignore possible complications.
I love sarcasm as much as the next guy. But when I visited a company I was coaching, I realized it can easily be used as a smokescreen for more difficult feelings. Employees made jabs at each other to discount one another in front of their bosses and pretended it was all in good humor — but my interviews revealed it wasn’t.
As you launch into a new year at work, watch your team operate. Try to take a back seat as often as possible to absorb their interactions. If you spot these telltale signs of dysfunction, you need to work to make your team — and its communication — more transparent.