Leadership / Communication

How You Know You Have a Communication Problem

Hint: Surprises and Disappointments

I was working with a client one time and the guy was complaining about employees not doing what they’re supposed to. He rattled off a half-dozen examples, punctuating each one with “everyone knows that” or “that’s just common sense.” His problem wasn’t his employees. His problem was his communication.

Surprises and disappointments. Those are the most telling symptoms for an organization with communication problems. When employees are constantly surprised by what’s expected of them, it’s a problem. When supervisors and the leadership are constantly disappointed because people aren’t doing what’s expected, it’s a problem.

Leadership starts with communication. So many challenges in organizations come from misunderstandings and miscommunications. Sometimes these issues are chalked up to leadership problems since it starts with communication.

That’s kind of true because it’s incumbent on leaders to master the skills of their craft. Unfortunately, a leader can do lots of good things but if they fail to clearly communicate, it’s all for not.

In case that’s too easy, you also need to examine how the company communicates in general. Does the left hand know what the right is doing? Does production know sales is planning a major event in two months? Do the salespeople know the supply chain is temporarily compromised and product delivery is going to be delayed by 30 days?


In order to get a handle on communication, you start by asking questions to determine the primary and different means people use to move information across the company.

How does your company communicate with its employees? E-mail? Hierarchical meetings? Town hall meetings? Is it two-way or simply top-down? Do leaders have conversations with people or tell them information? Conversations mean both sides listen and respond to what the other said, not simply reiterating their own point. People are present in the moment, not simply waiting for their turn to talk or multitasking with their phone while trying to have a conversation.

Sidebar: Here’s a newsflash: multitasking means you’re not doing any of the things you’re engaged in well. It’s not just me, this is well-documented. See this study from Stanford University.

In other words, you begin by identifying the channels used to communicate. Once those are identified, dig a little deeper. This is more difficult and more time intensive. You’re looking to determine the nature of the communications. That means you want to determine the tone and intent of them. Are people respectful of both the receiver and anyone else mentioned? For instance, I may write an e-mail to you and be respectful of you while disrespecting others within the e-mail. This shows team and cohesion problems.

Sometimes, e-mails are sent to the wrong recipients. I’m writing about someone and accidentally send the e-mail to them instead of the one I intended. An honest mistake, but if I’ve taken an ugly tone, I just created new problems in addition to the one I was writing about.

There is now a breach of trust with the subject of the e-mail because I was trying to talk behind his back. I’ve made the problem worse instead of simply dealing with it directly. Sometimes the direct approach isn’t always possible or may not be the most effective way. I’ve also damaged my own reputation by establishing in writing that I talk about people behind their backs. Those three new wrinkles must now be ironed out.

Sometimes e-mails are responded to and forwarded with little attention to the chain below the current one. This can result in comments intended to be private but are then shared openly. All those problems just discussed will then occur.

When this happens routinely, then disrespect becomes one of the organization’s values. Disrespect results in a loss of loyalty, trust, camaraderie, and teamwork. People become tight-lipped in communications and meetings, or even worse, stop contributing completely. They become paranoid anything they say or do will be subject to ridicule or gossip.

This may seem like an extended discussion of e-mail, but it all applies to other communication channels as well. Assessing communication is difficult and requires the leadership to step out of their own circles. Reading e-mail chains is one way to see how people talk to one another. Careful listening and observation during meetings are also helpful.

You certainly don’t want to be perceived as spying. While that perception is possible, it’s not what you’re doing. Sitting in on meetings you don’t normally sit in can also be helpful. Beware of Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty which loosely states the act of observing may change what’s being observed. In other words, people may act differently when the boss is present. Circulating, listening, observing and personal experience are helpful when you’re consciously looking for communication means and tone.

Surveys can also be used, but these require additional time and expense. Although I personally despise anonymous surveys, they will often elicit information which won’t be offered otherwise. Surveys aren’t as simple as they appear and some serious thought and expertise are needed to develop good ones. These can be outsourced for expertise if desired.

There are many areas where information must be clearly communicated. These include expectations, standards, goals, processes, policies, and so on. The first two are the most important in terms of manifesting a strong, cohesive workplace culture focused on success.


Another key part of the communications analysis consists of expectations. How are they communicated? How are they formed? What are they based on? These questions need to be answered and if they can’t be answered, then that’s an answer — and a communications failure.

Do leaders, managers, and supervisors routinely share expectations with their people? Some of this happens early in the relationship, such as with a new hire. But expectations are dynamic and need to be revisited routinely.

For instance, many businesses are seasonal. During the busy season, employees may be expected to work a great deal of overtime and not take days off. During the off-season, they’re encouraged to take vacation or take care of those things they need to do during the workday (say a dental appointment). If a special promotion or sales event is planned, then the rest of the company may need to ramp up as well to include bringing in some temporary help.


Are these clearly set or simply implied? Implied standards create ambiguity which will be exploited by leaders and employees alike, usually to their individual benefit and the detriment of the organization. Clearly communicating these will simplify many headaches by providing a better ruler for employee evaluation.

Examples may include dress codes or guidelines, normal work hours, clear specifications for written work, etc. Don’t overlook the mandated standards for safety, health, environment, as well as employment laws. There are companies who deliberately refrain from educating their employees on these matters to take advantage of them or reduce spending on required safety equipment.

Other times, a company may try to keep their employees ignorant out of fear they will use the knowledge to their own advantage. For instance, an employee who knows the standards for safety and realizes the company isn’t meeting them may use the knowledge in pay negotiations (i.e. blackmail). This situation clearly represents an antagonistic situation between the company and its employees. That’s a recipe for certain failure eventually and high worker turnover in the short-term. Good companies don’t fear a well-educated and trained workforce.

Give an eye to the appearance of the workplace in general and people’s workspaces specifically. Pin-up posters, crude or vulgar humor — these are indications of people’s thoughts and feelings. I know someone out there just threw up their hands or rolled their eyes in disgust, okay, here’s the PC crap again. That’s not it. I’m talking about being respectful of your teammates. I know some people like to say they’re equal opportunity offenders, that is, they make fun of everyone. When people say that, they think it lets them off the hook. What it really is someone saying, Hey, look at me, I’m a jerk — I don’t respect anyone so it’s okay.

I have also seen the situation of where someone displayed a racist or sexual cartoon. They’ll say, I asked Dave [a black employee] and he said he didn’t mind or Oh yeah, Cathy saw that — she thought it was funny. Put yourself in their place, perhaps you’re the only black employee or maybe there are only a few women. Maybe they don’t want to rock the boat, maybe they’re afraid it will lead to confrontation, or maybe they don’t want everyone thinking, oh, that’s Cathy, be careful what you say because you know, she’s one of those thin-skinned ones. Respect them by not putting them in that position. Don’t make people confront you about these things. There may be things you do or say others find offensive that you simply don’t realize. That’s different and when it comes up, apologize and ask for clarification to understand their perspective.

As the leader of an organization, whether it’s a non-profit or a Fortune 500 company, it’s your obligation to ensure information flows up and down. There are many techniques available to evaluate this flow. I’ve only outlined a few here as well as specific places to look. Too often poor leadership is cited when there’s only one component of it lacking: communication. Poor communication skills can be a fatal flaw for a leader and it’s a mortal threat to an organization.

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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