Workplace miscommunication: Definition, main causes, and how to fix it

Learn the impact of miscommunication in the workplace, identify common causes, and get practical solutions for improvement.

Inês Pinto

Workplace miscommunication: Definition, main causes, and how to fix it

Table of contents

What is workplace miscommunication?

Workplace miscommunication refers to the failure to effectively exchange information, instructions, or ideas within a professional setting. It occurs when the intended message is misunderstood, misinterpreted, or distorted, leading to confusion, mistakes, and potential conflicts. Miscommunication can manifest in various forms, such as ambiguous emails, unclear verbal instructions, or misaligned expectations regarding project goals or deadlines.

In today's fast-paced business environment, where teams often work across different locations, time zones, and communication channels, the risk of miscommunication is heightened. Examples of workplace miscommunication include misunderstandings about task responsibilities, missed deadlines due to conflicting information, or incorrect assumptions about project requirements.

Miscommunication in the workplace is a prevalent issue that can have far-reaching consequences. According to a study by The Holmes Report, inadequate communication costs businesses an average of $62.4 million per year in lost productivity. Furthermore, a survey by Fierce, Inc. revealed that 86% of employees blame a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.

Addressing miscommunication is crucial for maintaining productivity, fostering a positive work culture, and ensuring organizational success. Effective communication is essential for aligning teams, setting clear expectations, and promoting collaboration. By recognizing the importance of clear communication and implementing strategies to mitigate miscommunication, organizations can improve decision-making, enhance employee engagement, and ultimately drive better business outcomes.

Common causes of miscommunication at work

Before being able to implement any strategies to overcome miscommunication in the workplace, it is important to understand the root causes of this issue.

Miscommunication can occur in the workplace due to a number of factors:

❌ Unclear expectations. When objectives, roles, and responsibilities are ambiguous or poorly defined, it creates confusion and misalignment among team members. Without a shared understanding of what needs to be accomplished, people can work towards different or conflicting goals.

❌ Poor feedback loops. If there is no mechanism for clarifying messages, asking follow-up questions, or ensuring mutual understanding, important details can easily slip through the cracks. Active listening requires focused attention and effort to fully comprehend the speaker's intended meaning.

❌ Unmotivated or disengaged employees. Those who feel disconnected from their work or the company's mission may put in minimal effort, leading to missed messages, unclear instructions, or sloppy execution. Maintaining employee engagement and morale is crucial for fostering open lines of communication.

❌ Unclear leadership structure. If reporting lines, decision-making authority, and information pathways are ill-defined, messages may get lost, distorted, or fail to reach all relevant parties. Organizational silos and territorial mindsets further exacerbate communication breakdowns across teams or departments.

Examples of workplace miscommunication scenarios

Misunderstood messages and instructions

Misunderstood emails, messages or instructions are a common form of workplace miscommunication. An email with ambiguous requirements or a quickly typed Slack message can lead to confusion, rework, and delays. Similarly, verbal instructions that are unclear or misheard can derail projects.  

Unclear deadlines and responsibilities

Crossed wires on deadlines, responsibilities or priorities are another frequent miscommunication issue. When team members are unsure of who owns a task, when it's truly due, or how important it is relative to other priorities, chaos and firefighting inevitably follow.

Misalignment in project management

Misalignment on project scope, vision or deliverables can have severe ramifications. If stakeholders have different expectations around what will be produced, the budget, timeline or quality standards, the end result is likely to disappoint. Getting everyone on the same page upfront is critical.

Effects of miscommunication in the workplace

Miscommunication can have far-reaching and detrimental effects on an organization.

Miscommunication wastes time, effort, and resources

This is one of the primary consequences of miscommunication. When instructions are misunderstood or goals are unclear, employees may end up working on the wrong tasks or duplicating efforts unnecessarily. This inefficiency leads to lost productivity and increased costs for the company.

Miscommunication lowers morale and productivity

Constant misunderstandings, lack of clarity, and frustration can lead to disengagement and a decrease in job satisfaction. Unmotivated and disgruntled employees are less likely to perform at their best, further compounding the problem.

Miscommunication strains workplace relationships and culture

When communication breaks down, it can foster an environment of mistrust, resentment, and conflict among colleagues. This can lead to a toxic work environment, making it difficult for teams to collaborate effectively and hindering the overall success of the organization.

Miscommunication can impact revenue and profitability

Misaligned priorities, misunderstood project scopes, or missed deadlines can result in lost business opportunities, dissatisfied clients, and damage to the company's reputation. In extreme cases, miscommunication can even lead to legal issues or regulatory violations, which can be costly and damaging to the organization's bottom line.

Benefits of effective workplace communication

Effective workplace communication yields numerous tangible benefits for organizations. 

benefits of effective workplace communication

Boost productivity

It acts as a catalyst for increased productivity, innovation, and competitiveness. When employees can seamlessly collaborate, exchange ideas, and align on objectives, they can channel their collective efforts more efficiently towards achieving goals. Open communication fosters an environment conducive to creative problem-solving and continuous improvement.

Improve employee engagement

Furthermore, strong communication practices directly contribute to higher employee engagement, retention, and morale. Employees who feel heard, understood, and valued are more likely to remain motivated, committed, and satisfied in their roles. This positive workplace culture reduces costly turnover and enables organizations to attract and retain top talent.

Increase customer satisfaction

Improved communication also enhances customer satisfaction and loyalty. By ensuring consistent messaging and aligning internal teams, companies can deliver a superior customer experience across all touchpoints. Effectively managing customer expectations and addressing concerns in a timely manner builds trust and fosters long-lasting relationships.

Save unnecessary costs

Perhaps most significantly, effective communication mitigates the costs associated with errors, rework, and inefficiencies. Miscommunication often results in wasted time, effort, and resources due to misunderstandings, duplicated work, or misaligned priorities. By promoting clarity, transparency, and accountability, organizations can streamline processes, reduce redundancies, and optimize their operations for maximum efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

7 Tips to improve workplace communication

7 tips to improve workplace communication

1. Identify the root causes of poor communication

As we’ve established, miscommunication often stems from deeper organizational issues that enable poor communication habits to persist. A lack of formal communication training and an underappreciation of its importance means many employees never learn foundational skills. Over-reliance on digital communication channels like email, messaging, and virtual meetings can also hinder effective communication if not complemented by in-person interaction. 

Language barriers, cultural differences, and generational gaps further increase miscommunication risks. Employees from diverse backgrounds may have different communication styles and norms. Organizational silos and territorial mindsets between teams and departments inhibit information sharing and breed an insular "that's not my job" mentality. Underpinning many of these root causes is often a lack of leadership prioritization and role modeling of open, transparent communication behaviors.

It’s therefore important to pinpoint where your miscommunication issues are stemming from to better address the root cause behind them.

2. Implement feedback loops and active listening

Encouraging open dialogue and two-way communication is critical for effective workplace communication. By fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable providing feedback and asking clarifying questions, organizations can avoid costly misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Active listening involves fully concentrating, understanding, and responding to the speaker. It requires setting aside distracting thoughts, making eye contact, and resisting the urge to start formulating a response while the other person is still speaking. Through active listening, coworkers can better comprehend each other's perspectives, concerns, and ideas.

In addition to building mutual understanding, feedback loops and active listening help cultivate trust, empathy, and psychological safety within teams. When employees feel their voices are heard and their input is valued, they are more likely to speak up, take risks, and collaborate effectively. This open exchange of thoughts and opinions leads to more innovative solutions and better decision-making.

Managers who model active listening behaviors and create a safe space for open communication can significantly improve workplace relationships and foster a positive, productive culture.

Establishing robust feedback mechanisms, such as regular one-on-one meetings, team retrospectives, and anonymous suggestion boxes, provides employees with multiple avenues to share their thoughts and receive constructive feedback.

For example, you can use our Forms feature to collect suggestions and ideas from your deskless workers.

All you have to do is head to the Forms menu, on the left, and select one of our pre-made forms templates – Idea box.

Once you open it, you can fully customize it by adding text, video files, YouTube videos, images or PDFs. You can also edit the pre-existing text in the form.

When you’re ready, you can head to the form settings to filter the employees you want to send this form to based on filters like days in service, language, community, function group, etc.

And once you’ve published this form, you’ll be able to easily check form submissions as they come in the Submissions dashboard.

3. Set clear goals, expectations, and vision

Effective workplace communication hinges on setting clear goals, expectations, and a shared vision from the outset. By providing proper context and aligning teams on the desired outcomes, organizations can establish a sense of shared purpose, accountability, and ownership among employees.

A crucial aspect is facilitating coordination across different departments and functions. When everyone understands the overarching goals and how their roles contribute, it becomes easier to prioritize tasks, allocate resources effectively, and work cohesively towards common objectives.

Clear goals and expectations also help mitigate misunderstandings and misalignment. They provide a benchmark against which progress can be measured and course-corrected if needed. Additionally, they foster a sense of direction and motivation, as employees can see how their efforts fit into the bigger picture.

Ultimately, setting clear goals, expectations, and a compelling vision is a foundational step in fostering effective communication and collaboration within an organization. It lays the groundwork for teams to work in sync, make informed decisions, and collectively drive towards shared success.

4. Involve management in fostering open communication

Effective communication starts at the top. Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone and modeling desired communication behaviors within an organization. By walking the talk and exemplifying strong communication skills themselves, they provide a powerful example for others to follow.

Here is a simple breakdown of how they can do this:

  1. Firstly, leaders should consciously practice and demonstrate active listening, empathy, and emotional intelligence in their interactions. This involves being present, maintaining eye contact, asking clarifying questions, and respecting diverse perspectives. These behaviors foster an environment of trust and psychological safety, empowering employees to voice their ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of repercussions.

  1. Secondly, leaders must establish formal and informal communication channels that facilitate the free flow of information across all levels of the organization. This could include regular team meetings, town halls, open office hours, and digital collaboration platforms. By ensuring accessible and transparent communication pathways, leaders can break down silos, encourage cross-functional collaboration, and promote a culture of open dialogue.

  1. Furthermore, leaders should create opportunities for employees to engage in candid discussions, share feedback, and contribute to decision-making processes. This can be achieved through initiatives such as skip-level meetings, anonymous suggestion boxes, or dedicated feedback sessions. By actively seeking and valuing employee input, leaders foster a sense of inclusivity, ownership, and commitment to the organization's goals and vision.

5. Motivate and engage employees for better communication

Empowering employees to voice their concerns, ideas and feedback is crucial for fostering open communication. When team members feel their opinions are valued and that they can speak up without fear of repercussions, it creates an environment of trust and psychological safety. This, in turn, encourages more candid dialogue and knowledge sharing.

Organizations should also prioritize recognizing and rewarding effective communicators. This could involve publicly acknowledging those who demonstrate strong listening skills, clearly articulate complex ideas, or excel at facilitating group discussions. Tying communication competencies into performance reviews and compensation decisions reinforces their importance.

Finally, a collaborative, team-oriented culture is essential for improving communication flow. Employees need to view themselves not just as individual contributors, but as part of an interconnected network where clear communication across functions is vital for success. Team-building activities, cross-departmental projects, and informal social events can all help break down silos and foster a more cohesive, communicative environment.

6. Keep your virtual/remote workers in mind

In today's increasingly digital workplace, effective communication in virtual and remote settings is crucial. Leverage video calls and visual aids whenever possible, as they provide valuable nonverbal cues and context that can be easily missed in text-based communication. Be explicit in your messaging, and take the time to summarize key points to ensure clarity and shared understanding.

Creating virtual "water cooler" spaces, such as dedicated chat channels or regular virtual coffee breaks, can also facilitate informal conversations and rapport-building among remote team members. These casual interactions can foster a sense of connection and camaraderie, ultimately improving overall communication and collaboration within the remote or virtual team.

7. Develop and carry out communication training

Implementing comprehensive communication training programs can significantly enhance workplace communication effectiveness. These should focus on developing active listening skills, cultivating emotional intelligence, and improving writing and presentation abilities.

👂 Active listening workshops

Active listening workshops teach employees to be fully present, avoid distractions, and concentrate on the speaker's words and nonverbal cues. Participants learn techniques like paraphrasing, asking clarifying questions, and providing feedback to ensure mutual understanding.

🫂 Emotional intelligence training

Emotional intelligence training helps employees recognize and manage their own emotions while developing empathy to better understand others' perspectives. This heightened self-awareness and interpersonal skills can reduce miscommunication and conflict.

✍️ Writing skills coaching

Writing skills coaching equips employees to craft clear, concise, and impactful emails, reports, and other professional communications. Best practices include using straightforward language, proper formatting, and tailoring content to the audience.

🖥️ Presentation skills training

Presentation skills training covers verbal and non-verbal delivery techniques, creating engaging visuals, and effectively structuring ideas. Employees gain confidence in conveying information persuasively to diverse audiences.

📄 Communication frameworks

Additionally, and in an effort to standardize processes, organizations should implement templates and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for common communication scenarios like meetings, project updates, or customer interactions. Providing consistent frameworks enhances clarity and streamlines information sharing.

3 Ways to to measure communication effectiveness

As you implement your strategies to improve communication in your organization, it’s important to set up effective mechanisms to track and monitor the effectiveness of communication across your organization.

Here are 3 practical ways to gauge the state of your organization’s communication tactics: 

1. Gather qualitative data via surveys

Gathering feedback from employees through surveys and focus groups is crucial for understanding the current state of communication within an organization. This qualitative data can provide valuable insights into areas of strength and opportunities for improvement from the perspective of those directly impacted.

2. Track quantitative metrics and KPIs

In addition to employee feedback, it's important to track quantitative communication metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). These can include measures such as email response times, meeting attendance and participation rates, intranet or internal social media engagement, and the frequency and clarity of company-wide updates or announcements. Analyzing these metrics over time can help identify trends and potential bottlenecks in the communication flow.

3. Conduct comprehensive audits

Periodically conducting comprehensive communication audits is another best practice for assessing the effectiveness of an organization's communication strategies and channels. These audits typically involve a thorough review of all communication materials, processes, and tools, as well as an evaluation of how well they align with the company's goals, values, and culture. Communication audits can be performed internally or by external consultants, and they often include recommendations for enhancing communication practices.

Inês Pinto

Inês Pinto

Inês is the Head of Content at Oneteam. She mainly writes about employee experience and other HR topics. Fun fact about Inês: she is originally from Portugal, grew up in Canada and the US, and now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and 3 daughters!

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