Don’t Blame it on Communication

pensive woman staring off to the side in her office

Don’t Blame it on Communication

Has anyone complained to you recently about a lack of communication in your organization? Are you hearing that people feel like they don’t know what’s going on? Maybe you’ve even privately thought this to yourself. Or maybe, like others in this time of resignations and reshuffling, you decided to conduct an employee survey and communication came out as a top issue, and now you’ve got to do something about it. But what?

At Tandem Partners, we’ve devoted our professional lives to helping people and organizations grow, and we’d be the first to endorse working on communication. On the other hand, experience has taught us that what is sometimes labeled “poor communication” is a symptom of something else. Until you can see and understand the real cause, the odds of fixing a problem so it stays fixed are greatly reduced.

So, if it’s not really communication, what is it? Here are five underlying organizational issues that sometimes read as poor communication.

  1. Unclear Roles – When things go wrong, people search for something to explain the breakdown and communication seems like a likely candidate. But very often, the source is unclear roles. To address this, ask employees to define their essential role and key responsibilities. Get people together to talk about intersections, overlaps and dependencies between roles. Watch communication improve.
  2. Micromanagement – Micromanagers often have good intentions. They’re focused on getting results or trying to protect employees from making mistakes. But the outcome is never ideal – employees feel stymied, disengaged, and left in the dark. No amount of communication will make up for a deficit in the primary working relationship between employees and the people they report to.
  3. Poor Line of Sight – People experience discomfort when they can’t see the connection between what they do and the organization’s goals. How leaders explain mission, vision, strategies and how individual roles fit into the big picture greatly impacts how employees feel about leadership and internal communication effectiveness.
  4. Growing Pains – As organizations grow, there often comes a time when it’s no longer possible to have your finger on the pulse of everything or to be on a first name basis with everyone. Sometimes, when we complain of poor communication, it’s actually a sign that we’ve been successful – and that we need to evolve ourselves and how we operate at a pace that matches the organization’s growth.
  5. Unresolved Conflict – When addressing communication, leaders may seek ways to disseminate more information – launch a new messaging platform, hold another meeting, revive the company newsletter. But if unresolved conflict between people or teams is the issue, greater access to information will only scratch the surface. Communication has a big role to play in resolving conflict but may not itself be the problem.

Complaints about communication problems are often more symptomatic than diagnostic. So be aware that when you say “we’re having communication problems,” it isn’t necessarily actionable and in fact may obscure the real patterns, problems and opportunities that could be addressed.