Communication breakdowns: examples of ineffectiveness

Everyone in a workplace must work together for the company to achieve its goals. Effective teamwork and collaboration make life easier for individual employees. Communication is a key part of this. It facilitates understanding, decision-making, conflict resolution, innovation, trust and respect.

Being aware of other people’s communication styles can be beneficial for any team. When leaders convey information clearly and effectively to individual team members, it can minimize misunderstandings that slow productivity or cause unnecessary conflict.

An environment that encourages openness where employees can share ideas freely also enhances employee engagement and job satisfaction. This offers the business the crucial advantage of being able to hire and retain qualified employees.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the many ways in which ineffective communication can manifest itself in the workplace. We’ll also provide some helpful tips on how to turn poor communication around and improve workplace culture.

What causes ineffective communication in the workplace?

Let’s start by looking at some of the common causes of ineffective communication. This will help you identify them in your own workplace.

Unclear objectives

Managers set objectives to get everyone on the same page and aligned so that they can work toward achieving the company’s goals. While this is the goal, it doesn’t always end up happening.

When managers don’t communicate objectives to their employees clearly, team members can develop different ideas of what the objectives actually are. This misalignment can lead to many communication errors.

This can get worse when team members assume that everyone has interpreted the objective in the same way. In this instance, people will begin talking past one another, not realizing they are discussing different interpretations of the same thing.

Limited feedback

As employees go about their daily tasks and work toward the goals managers and leaders set for them, thorough and frequent feedback is an important part of the puzzle. Without feedback, employees might do something incorrectly or in a way that doesn’t align with company goals.

Unclear objectives can exacerbate this problem further. The employee could be working toward the objective in a way that doesn’t match expectations. This is harmful to the company and employee, as it can reduce motivation, confidence and job satisfaction.

Frequent communication through feedback cuts this problem off before it happens.

Demoralized employees

People are more open when they are happy and satisfied with their work. They tend to withdraw when circumstances become difficult.

For example, if you’re demoralized, you might go to work, get your work done in the most uneventful way possible and then go home. This approach to work doesn’t facilitate innovation or growth.

When employees withdraw like this, they don’t communicate with coworkers as much as they otherwise would. An open, inviting workplace is far more conducive to effective communication.

Cultural diversity

Diversity can be a powerful tool for business success. People from different backgrounds bring unique perspectives with them. They can provide a more complete picture of a problem or suggest solutions that other employees wouldn’t think of.

However, different cultures have different acceptable communication standards. A positive gesture in one culture could be highly offensive in another. If coworkers don’t take the time or have the opportunity to understand the different cultures in the workplace, miscommunications can occur.

How does ineffective communication affect a business?

When communication in the workplace becomes ineffective, several negative side effects begin to impact the company. If these conditions aren’t remedied, it will prevent the company from growing or even put it at risk of failing.


Poor communication can lead to conflict, no matter the context. This can happen in several ways.

In written communication especially, people may take offense where none is intended because tone doesn’t translate in writing. Employees who are unable to express their feelings effectively may become distressed that they don’t feel heard. Similarly, those who can’t recognize the emotions of others might not be as supportive as they need to be.

Low morale

Nobody wants to work in a hostile environment.

As communication breaks down, work environments become less pleasant to work in. Employees withdraw and don’t feel as comfortable expressing themselves as they should be. They may feel as though the managers or team members don’t care about what they have to say.

As things worsen, employees may begin to feel and display antagonism at work. This could involve getting angry with coworkers or assuming that coworkers feel negatively about them.

Less effective collaboration

Collaboration requires close teamwork, and teamwork requires close and effective communication.

Team members need to be on the same page every step of the way if they are to work together productively. When workplace communication is poor, the team will drift out of alignment. At best, this leads to delays. At worst, it can lead to conflicts that degrade morale.

Ineffective communication styles

Let’s look at some of the ways communication breaks down. Below, you’ll find some common yet ineffective styles of communication that plague many workplaces.

  • Lack of enthusiasm: excitement is contagious. So is a lack of excitement. If a speaker comes across as bored, listeners will reciprocate and not listen as intently as they otherwise might. It’s your job to keep everyone engaged.
  • Interrupting other people: the opposite problem can also exist. Some people are so excited to get their point across that they ignore what other people are saying. They might even interrupt them. One-way conversations don’t work. Listening is key to understanding.
  • Indirectness: to be an effective communicator, you need to be tactful. However, try not to be so vague that you don’t get your message across clearly. Direct messages are clearest.
  • Lack of conciseness: short messages are easier to process. The longer and more drawn out a message is, the more people will tune out or get lost trying to follow it.
  • Complaining: it’s common for children to whine or complain in an effort to get their way. While you’d expect people to grow out of this habit, that’s not the case universally. In adulthood, whiners and complainers hurt morale and often damage their own causes. Gossip may also impede good communication.
  • Close-minded or one-sided interactions: good communication requires all parties involved to understand where the others are coming from. Being close-minded prevents people from understanding other people’s viewpoints, making it more challenging to address their concerns.

6 examples of ineffective communication

Here are six scenarios that drive home how some of these problems can disrupt workplace communication. Although these stories are fictional, they represent realistic examples of what regularly occurs in professional settings.

1. Email blunders

Alice is a project manager working on a presentation for a client.

She sends out an email requesting files that are critical to the presentation. She sends the email to Bob, with the subject line, “Tomorrow’s meeting.” Bob sees the subject and assumes it’s just a reminder about the meeting tomorrow. He doesn’t open the email until the following morning.

When he opens the email, he finds an extremely verbose message. Alice’s request is buried deep within the text.

Bob missing the urgency delays Alice’s presentation, putting the company’s standing with the client at risk. The reason for this is Alice’s unclear subject line and overcomplicated message.

2. Meeting mismanagement

Carl is a team manager. During a weekly meeting, he fails to set an agenda.

The meeting starts off well enough, with the team discussing a simple project update. However, the conversation quickly gets off track, deviating to workplace topics unrelated to the project.

As the topic goes off the rails, participants become increasingly unclear on what the meeting is about. Some of them disengage and begin focusing on their laptops or phones.

By the end of the meeting, Carl and the other participants haven’t spent much time discussing the project. Most wonder what the point was in the first place.

Carl could have kept things on track and had a productive hour with his team. He’ll need to plan meetings more thoroughly in the future.

3. Poor crisis communication

Denise is the head of an IT department.

One day, a critical system outage occurs. Denise sends an initial message to staff telling them that the problem will be resolved within an hour. Complications cause delays, so Denise sends out another message updating the team. However, she doesn’t explain what’s causing the delays or what her team is doing to solve the issue.

Employees throughout the company rely on Denise’s timeline to manage their own schedules. Her poor crisis management, characterized by a lack of transparency and consistent updates, causes frustration. This damages the team’s trust in Denise and the IT department.

4. Virtual communication failures

Nick is hosting a monthly strategy session via a popular video conferencing platform to discuss upcoming project milestones.

A software update has caused a problem on Nick’s end, so he can’t share his screen. Nick’s team initially fails to tell him about the problem, hoping he’ll eventually notice on his own. Some stay silent out of politeness; others simply don’t feel comfortable correcting the boss.

For a long portion of the meeting, Nick discusses slides that nobody can see. This causes confusion and a lack of engagement from team members.

The underlying problem here is that Nick or his company hasn’t built an environment where employees feel safe and comfortable speaking up. This resulted in time wasting and miscommunication.

5. Feedback fiascos

Helen is Gina’s manager. During Gina’s performance review, Helen tells her to be more proactive. However, she doesn’t elaborate on this. Gina doesn’t feel comfortable asking Helen what she means.

Gina leaves the meeting unsure of what specific actions she needs to take. When she fails to take the steps Helen envisioned, she chastises her for not working hard enough to improve. As a result, Gina feels demotivated. She questions her abilities and the value she brings to the team.

This is another example of the downsides of creating an environment where people don’t feel empowered to speak up. Helen’s failure to be direct and clear in her messaging also contributed to this problem.

6. Assumption accidents

Frank is a member of a project team at a software development firm. The team has a new member: Ian.

Frank assumes that Ian is already familiar with the company’s standard operating procedures, but this isn’t the case. Frank mentioned in passing that he needs Ian to update some client documentation. Because Ian hasn’t fully acclimatized to the new system, he goes about the task but misses some crucial steps. This leads to significant delays in the project.

In this example, both parties could have communicated better. Frank made assumptions that he shouldn’t have, while Ian failed to ask for clarification.

How to address poor communication in the workplace

Discover handy tips for turning poor workplace communication around. Although shifting your company’s culture may take time, these pointers will help you stay on track.

Establish clear communication protocols

Establish easy-to-follow protocols for which channels specific communication needs require. Include elements such as expected response times and guidelines for what tone of language is acceptable.

Avoid chain of command situations if possible. If employees can’t speak freely to managers and leaders, this can be a red flag for serious communication problems.

Enhance listening skills

Encourage employees to practice active listening. This means paying attention to what other people say, listening for meaning rather than hearing them passively and asking for clarification when needed.

Active listening also requires an open mind, as biases can cloud your perceptions. Create a keyword or phrase to check in with your audience. You can use something like, “Does this make sense?” or “Does anyone have any questions?”

Promote open feedback channels

A culture of openness is one of the biggest components of effective communication. Providing easy-to-access feedback channels and encouraging employees to use them will let them know that their voices are important. This encourages healthy dialogue.

Promoting a culture of feedback can be challenging. Provide team members with tools to give feedback in a positive way. Some think the cookie method is too basic, but it gets the job done:

  1. Give a compliment.
  2. Suggest an area to improve.
  3. Give a compliment.

Use effective communication tools

The right communication tools can make all the difference. You can use a software product to unify communications, making it easier for everyone to get the information they need.

Educational tools like Pip Decks offer practical advice, prompts and instructions for streamlining the entire communication process. 

Build a culturally competent workplace

When there are team members from different cultures, cultural differences can lead to miscommunication.

We have so much to learn from each other. Prevent miscommunication by holding training sessions that make everyone at the company aware of how different cultures react to different gestures or sayings. You can also cover what different cultures consider “normal.”

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