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Top 7 communication barriers in the workplace and how to overcome them

Communication issues are the main causes of unnecessary workplace conflict — here’s how you can prevent these problems from happening again.
Published 20 Jun 2022
11 min read
employees having a lively discussion in the meeting room

Communication is everything in the workplace.

Did you know that nearly 15% of an employee’s total work time is wasted on inefficient communications? On a global basis, that’s more than $10,000 per employee per year wasted on communication inefficiencies.

Poor communication or communication breakdowns can affect workplace productivity, staff turnover, and professional relationships within teams. Recognising the communication barriers that exist in your workplace, and adopting strategies to resolve them, will help you build and maintain a more positive work environment for all employees.

Comic regarding poor communication skills in the workplace
Image via Dilbert

Why is effective communication important at work?

Everything done at work starts with communication. Texts, emails, meetings, announcements…

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.” — Steve Jobs

1. Increases productivity

Effective communication helps to eliminate unnecessary roadblocks or problems, increase overall productivity, and strengthens relationships in the team. Employees who communicate effectively with each other also work better together, and make decisions easier while discovering the best solutions.

Likewise, good communication allows managers to effectively convey their expectations, understand the skills and needs of their employees, and give clear directions when delegating tasks, enhancing the overall effectiveness of a project.

Statistics show that well-connected teams which leverage social technologies to improve communication and collaboration see an increase in productivity by 20-25%.

2. Increases retention

Effective communication leads to stronger employee engagement — when employees feel recognised, validated and supported at work, they are more committed in contributing towards organisational goals. In fact, employees who feel that their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.

Providing constant feedback between supervisors and employees, having open channels of communication, and sharing key updates or information with employees are all important enablers of employee engagement. This environment enhances an employee’s sense of belonging to the organisation, because they are constantly ‘in the know’ and well-informed about workplace changes, development opportunities and social gatherings.

When a culture of good two-way communication is established in a team or workplace, employees are able to share ideas freely or raise problems, be more engaged in their work, and become well-aligned with company objectives.

3. Facilitates stronger relationships built on trust

Communication is central to promoting camaraderie and collaboration. Teamwork begins by building trust, and effective communication helps to improve and strengthen relationships between team members — creating a positive and rewarding work environment.

Having a company culture which fosters transparency through open communication also helps to build trust between employers and employees. It allows employees to feel better connected to their workplace, gain a better understanding of their organisation’s strategy, identify with company values, all the while solidifying their sense of belonging by realising their role in the wider purpose.

4. Mitigates conflict

Conflicts often arise in the workplace due to a variety of reasons. Employees can feel misunderstood, or misunderstandings can be caused due to a difference in communication styles. The lack of understanding between employees on their differing communication styles can result in team members feeling disrespected, disregarded, or taken advantage of — which leads to unnecessary tension and conflict.

Having better communication within the team allows each individual to express and address their needs, lays the foundation for smoother collaboration, and increases employee engagement.

What are the most common communication barriers in the workplace?

Can you identify any of these barriers in your current workplace?

1. Physical barriers

There are plenty of physical barriers such as work environments, background noise, and communication channel issues that, in turn, create communication barriers.

two colleagues chatting happily in the office

Work environments play a huge role in influencing communication. There’s a reason why the seating arrangements in an office are organised by teams — it facilitates effective communication when it comes to asking questions, bouncing ideas off each other, and building strong relationships when members have to constantly communicate and collaborate with each other daily.

If an organisation has team members scattered around on different floors, hot-desking, or adopting hybrid models whereby team members are never in the office at the same time, it may hinder communication, unless appropriate processes are put into place to compensate for the lack of physical presence.

Another factor that affects communication is how comfortable employees feel at their workplace. If their home or office setup isn’t optimal, employees may find it hard to focus and communicate clearly regarding their day-to-day tasks. They can be easily distracted by their environments because it is too hot or cold, their desks and chairs are too low, high or uncomfortable, or if the lighting is too bright or dim.

Background noise is also another common barrier to effective communication. Employees who work in the office may often struggle with colleagues having loud conversations nearby — which can be distracting when you’re trying to focus on a task or attending a meeting. Those working from home may be constantly disturbed by noise from their family members, roommates, or partners, or even construction noise from their neighbours (but noises from pets are definitely welcome)!

2. Geographical barriers

Time and distance primarily affect remote working teams the most, as employees do not work from the same office, or even the same time zone. This can make real-time communication or in-person communication inconvenient, or near impossible — unless compromises are made to find a suitable meeting time for all parties. It may also result in issues with developing trust amongst teams, unless processes are put in place to ensure visibility and transparency of tasks to be done and progress made.

3. Cultural differences

Cultural differences become more pronounced in a global team, involving cultural norms, beliefs, and values. Cultural barriers tend to arise as employees have different communication styles stemming from their own social norms and values. It might also lead to misunderstandings as individuals may form wrong assumptions based on stereotypes of the other person’s culture.

two colleagues chatting in the office

Social etiquette is also different in each culture. For example, maintaining strong eye contact in professional settings can be seen as assertive and confident in some cultures, while it can be seen as aggressive and disrespectful in others.

Each culture is also unique in its own way, with differing cultural norms, beliefs and values, as well as holidays, religions and customs. Rules for proper business etiquette can be vastly different, and hence cause employees from different cultures to misinterpret each other. Global team members might find a comment or action by their colleague unusual, uncomfortable, or disrespectful, which breeds resentment within the team and further reinforces communication barriers.

Let’s also not forget ethnocentrism — which is a feeling of superiority regarding one’s own culture or way of life. Holding stereotypes against a particular culture or group of people is very detrimental to workplace culture, and can manifest in many forms such as microaggressions, biases and overt or subtle discrimination. Having prejudices against team members prevents an inclusive workplace environment and disrupts effective communication between colleagues.

4. Language barriers

Language is another crucial barrier to effective communication — global teams with members who have different mother tongues may struggle to communicate effectively with each other. Some people might have strong accents, which may make understanding difficult, and messages don’t get clearly communicated across.

Slang words might also be easily understood in some cultures but not in others — can you think of any? We’ve got some Australian examples you might have heard of, such as ‘arvo’, ‘chucking a sickie’, ‘take a squiz’, and ‘ta’. Or Singaporean examples like ‘Can lah’, ‘chop chop get this done’, ‘sian’ and ‘eye power only’.

Nonverbal language such as hand gestures, body language, or facial expressions can also hold different meanings in different cultures, so it’s important for employees to be aware and sensitive of their environments before using it in communication.

5. Generational barriers

employees working side by side in the office

Do the words ‘boomer’ and ‘millennial’ sound familiar? They can be hurtful remarks when used in derogatory contexts, and are often used when older generations have prejudices against the younger generation or vice versa. Ageism or reverse ageism is pervasive in the workplace, and this leads to communication barriers because it hinders collaboration between intergenerational teams.

Older employees tend to dismiss the opinions and efforts of younger employees, viewing them as inexperienced, lazy or quitters in the workplace; while younger employees view older employees as inflexible, out of touch, or having limited competency when it comes to using technology. This creates workplace silos with neither generation willing to communicate with each other.

6. Hierarchical barriers

Hierarchies are essential in organisations to ensure structure, but communication can be complicated between employees of varying status levels. Communication barriers are likely more prevalent in organisations where hierarchy is strictly enforced and respected, and employees of differing statuses can only converse through ‘official’ communication channels like emails.

Or worse, a top-down hierarchy where communication is one-sided means any information is simply passed down from the CEO to the rest of the company, without any input from employees who are stifled and silenced.

Employees in senior positions can be tempted to dismiss messages, feedback, or ideas from subordinates, simply because they are empowered to do so based on their hierarchical level and status. Conversely, subordinate employees might be reluctant and fearful of communicating honestly and authentically with their superiors, as they do not want to inadvertently offend them and hamper their own career opportunities.

7. Emotional/psychological barriers

Emotional or psychological barriers such as anger, pride, and social anxiety can impact communication in the workplace. These emotions hold employees back from effectively communicating with their teammates, and also prevent them from listening attentively or considering alternative perspectives on issues.

woman at work biting a pencil

Employees who are prone to anger are less likely to be logical in discussions, and hamper productivity in solving problems. They are more inclined to resist the opinions and ideas of others, and cause the receiving party to become defensive, afraid, hurt, and feel disrespected. This results in a communication barrier because team members are less likely to approach that individual for questions or solutions as they do not want to provoke them.

Pride is another key communication barrier because it implies that an individual takes pride in their words and actions — and in extreme cases, it causes them to talk more than they listen. Listening is a very important skill in effective communication because it facilitates discussions. If an individual is stubborn in proving that their opinion is the best and only way to do things, teammates will find them incredibly difficult to work with, hampering productivity and workflows.

Anxiety is also an emotional barrier to workplace communication. Individuals with generalised anxiety can struggle with effective communication skills in an office setting or in virtual meetings, because they are constantly worried about what to say and are unable to concentrate on what others are saying. Social anxiety may also cause employees to selectively avoid social situations in the workplace, and communication suffers as a result.

5 ways to overcome communication barriers in the workplace

Now that you know the common communication barriers in the workplace, it’s time to find out how to overcome them.

1. Identify differing communication styles

group of people chatting together at a table

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing employees. Each individual communicates in their own style at work, based on their backgrounds, strengths and needs. Some may prefer verbal communication, while others prefer written communications. Some may be direct and concise in verbiage, while others rely on the use of tone, facial expressions and gestures.

When individuals don’t recognise the needs of the other party, it creates obstacles in communication. As a leader, you need to identify each individual’s communication style within your team to figure out a process that works best for everyone.

Personality tests can help your team members understand their own communication styles better, and also provide full transparency when everyone shares their individual results with the team. Popular options include the MBTI test and the DiSC Personality Test.

2. Establish OKRs

If you haven’t heard of OKRs before, they stand for Objective Key Results.

The objective is defined as the big goal to be achieved, and the key results help to measure the progress towards hitting that objective. They can be created top-down and bottom-up, and it’s key for company level OKRs to be established first.

How does this help with communication you ask? It helps remove barriers to effective communication when employees are informed and aware of the common goal they are all working towards. By having company OKRs, which are designed to be public and set for everyone in the business, all employees have a clear picture of what is expected of them.

This also facilitates employee OKRs to be established, where each employee has a say in how they can help achieve the company OKRs through their respective roles. OKRs help to build a culture of transparency, which in turn cultivates trust and team spirit when everyone is cognisant of their individual roles and responsibilities.

3. Embrace asynchronous communication

Laptop showing an ongoing zoom meeting in the background

Remote work has become the new buzzword ever since the pandemic. However, as many across the world embrace the new way of working, it’s also led to the emergence of geographical, physical, cultural, and language barriers in the workplace. Enter asynchronous communications!

With team members spread around globally in different timezones, embracing asynchronous working is key. Plus, it comes with a whole host of benefits, such as providing big chunks of focus time and ensuring progress is constantly made regardless of the hour in the day. There’s also plenty of ways you can set up a communication cadence for distributed teams.

Don’t forget the usage of digital platforms, which is essential for effective asynchronous communication. Be sure to incorporate communication tools for remote working so regardless of the time difference, your team members are getting their intentions conveyed accurately and smoothly across.

Keen to find out more on how you can better manage your team the remote-first way? Download our remote first workplace playbook today.

4. Create an inclusive workplace

employees gathered in a circle sitting down and chatting

Every employee wants to work in an inclusive workplace where they feel safe, accepted, and heard. Creating an inclusive workplace doesn’t just mean recruiting diverse talent — it goes beyond that and requires additional investment and support to ensure job satisfaction.

You don’t want your employees masking their authentic selves at work because they don’t feel comfortable or seen, this is when cultural differences and language barriers in communication arise, affecting overall productivity as well as employee retention and engagement.

If you want to leverage your team’s differences and capitalise on their unique backgrounds, ideas and opinions as strengths to propel your business forwards and upwards, fostering an inclusive workplace culture should be a key priority. Be open to learning new things about their culture, lifestyle, quirks, interests and beliefs from each and every one of them.

Check out our diversity and inclusion handbook for more helpful tips, to combat any possible workplace communication barriers that might arise from having a diverse workforce.

5. Encourage two-way feedback

Having consistent 1:1s with your employee is a great way to provide feedback both ways and facilitate communication without any emphasis on hierarchy. Rather than let their feelings and emotions bottle up without any recourse, 1:1s provide the opportunity for them to have open and honest conversations about their difficulties in a safe environment.

There are plenty of guided questions you can ask in a one-on-one meeting to help identify any barriers to communication your employee is currently facing. They’ll be able to raise any red flags they spot in internal communications, or point out any teammates that they are struggling to communicate with due to differing communication styles.

Ensure that you receive their feedback with empathy, and help them out by giving them effective feedback with radical candour. Dedicating time on a regular basis for teammates and leaders to connect and communicate is vital in creating a harmonious work environment. Download our bundle for more tips on how to run effective 1:1s.

Good communication in the workplace comes from a positive work environment

You don’t want to wait to be dealing with barriers to communication in the workplace only as and when they arise. Take a proactive and pre-emptive approach by setting up your team’s communication for success by ensuring good communication practices are already in place.

With a HR software like Employment Hero, you’ll be able to streamline these processes so easily — with built in 1:1 features, employee reward and recognition, happiness surveys, digital records of important communications, and more.

A positive work environment facilitates good communication, so improve your relationship between team members (in 30 days!) with our workplace culture bundle today.

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