Clear communication is rare. So rare, in fact, that it’s a wonder how anyone can wonder if the liberal arts are useless in the workplace (spoiler alert: they’re not). It takes confidence, but not too much. It takes empathy, but you can’t shy away from difficult conversations. It can upset the office’s political landscape, and it or you might just be tired of spending all of your goodwill on conversations that fall on deaf ears. The consequences of bad communication in the workplace can bring organizations to their knees, making it that effort very worthwhile in the long run.
These are the signs your team needs to chat a bit more openly.
Consequences of bad communication in the workplace
Miscommunication has very real and negative effects that can eat away at companies from the inside out. These real-world examples show exactly how it happens—and some will make you cringe.
Wasted time and money
My first job as a textbook writer quickly became “my first job as a content marketing writer” because the owner of that company couldn’t decide what he wanted to do, and he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) convey any vision to the employees. He hired up to 15 people at one point, which was about 200% more employees than the company needed to fulfil its contracts.
Instead of finding new contracts, hiring a sales director, or even developing a marketing plan, he just stepped back from the company and let it hemorrhage money—his money—until it all crumbled.
He also insisted that the most experienced writers in the company create and teach a professional writing course for the rest of the company, on which more than $70,000 was spent—all to train employees that didn’t have anything to do in the first place. If he had communicated his vision for the company, those writers could have tried to acquire relevant skills instead of just twiddling their thumbs.
You see, those 10 extra employees he hired were paid roughly $25,000 USD per year, which worked out to around $250,000 in employee wages that didn’t contribute to revenue, product development, sales, marketing, or administration. Wasted revenue is one of the worst consequences of bad communication in the workplace, and it can kill a startup’s chances immediately.
That business owner wasn’t alone. According to the CEO of the Grossman Group, poor communication costs an average of $26,041 in lost productivity per employee every year.
My first agency job after 9 months of unemployment was a godsend for me as well as an incredible source of learning, but that agency had a turnover problem.
Here’s the thing: agencies are always more hectic than other office workplaces. People still left at an alarming rate. The company’s total head count numbered 12-15, but an average of 1-2 people left every month.
Why did so many people leave?
- The owner had 2 team leaders but also gave instructions directly, which pulled the team in different directions.
- Clients were rarely brought on-side to the agency’s strategies, so client requests and the agency’s directions were often at odds for the employees trying to satisfy both.
- The team leaders were worked so hard that they burned out. That left the team without next steps in many situations.
Turnover was one of several direct consequences of bad communication in the workplace, and it cut deeply into the agency’s ability to stay afloat. The amount of time and money that went into onboarding new employees became a permanent fixture on the balance sheet instead of occurring once every 6-10 months. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since poor communication is the second-most powerful reason why employees quit their jobs.
Missed deadlines (and revenue)
Miscommunication leads to crossed wires, which is code for neither person understanding what the other meant, then acting out of sync or even tripping over each other.
A client I once worked with wanted a digital advertising campaign launched by the end of the week, which left 4-5 days to prepare the campaign. It would take a lot of work on short notice because that client had a tendency to request revisions on most ads.
Here’s the thing: the client didn’t tell her own advertising specialist about it. She told her right-hand man, the graphic designer, and even the part-time technical administrator—but not the person who managed all of the digital advertising channels. The client didn’t tell me about it either, even though she wanted me to write the ads.
Can you guess what happened next?
Spoiler alert: the ad campaign didn’t launch because we didn’t hear about it until 4 days later. The client had to delay the campaign by a week and missed the seasonal window to launch it.
Disastrous executive decisions
Another client of mine was approached by a salesperson who promised to generate leads for commission only. This sounded great to the client because they’d only pay when the revenue came in, making it a guaranteed return on investment.
That did sound great, but there was a huge flaw in the plan that would have made it a disaster caused by miscommunication.
This commission-only salesperson wanted some of our marketing materials to keep his own advertising “on-brand” with the client, and the client verbally agreed to share whatever he wanted. What did this mercenary salesperson want? Oh, just a carbon copy of our entire website with all 300 pages of content, premium images, and proprietary branding.
No big deal or anything, right?
I was flabbergasted. Clearly this sales agent was trying to pull a fast one on my client in order to walk away with our most competitive marketing asset. I’d had several past conversations about why we can’t give away our content (much less duplicate it), as it was the lifeblood of his website’s traffic (and sales, by extension—and the client had agreed to give this random person a copy of it, which I’d spent several years building. I pulled the client back from the ledge, but he would have destroyed his sales funnel and his entire business with it if I hadn’t intervened.
The best part? This client didn’t even loop me into the conversation. One of his own people mentioned it to another employee, who then asked me about it.
If the client had consulted the experts he was already paying in the first place, he would have known that this was a bad deal with “scam” written all over it. Instead, he kept the conversation hidden from everyone until after he’d already given a verbal agreement. There was even talk of a contract, but by a fluke he was delayed from signing it.
How to avoid miscommunication at work
We’ve covered the specific consequences of bad communication in the workplace, but that’s only half the equation. Follow these easy best practices to prevent yourself (and your team) from falling into disastrous situations like the ones above.
Don’t communicate exclusively through email
One of the worst things you can do for communication on a day-to-day basis is to keep your work correspondence relegated to an email chain. Yes, it’s great for sensitive conversations and one-on-one chats, but it becomes a detriment the moment you need to include a wider team.
Email becomes more exclusive as the size of your team (or project) grows:
- Senders forget to include every recipient.
- Replies often go to the original person instead of using “reply all.”
- Details get lost in long email chains that nobody wants to sift through.
Always leave a written record (even for yourself)
It’s SO important to create a written record of important conversations. So much correspondence happens through drop-in chats and passing conversations that you can’t possibly record it all.
However, you still need to record important project details, or anything that seems odd for these reasons:
- You’ll help yourself remember important project details, especially if you need to deal with something stressful or more pressing first.
- You can provide important project details to another team member joining the project.
- It provides evidence of conversations if the other party (even your boss) denies having said something important (I’ve experienced this more than once).
Use project management software
Team-sized problems require team-sized solutions, plain and simple. Project management by email doesn’t work any better than by white board—especially since the pandemic started. You can’t just pop into someone’s office or roll your chair over to their desk for clarification.
It also doesn’t help that few people can write clearly or effectively. Together, distance and poor writing create a recipe for failure—on top of all the usual roadblocks you’ll encounter, like lazy co-workers and the confusion of large, multi-stage projects.
That’s where project management software comes in. It lets you avoid the consequences of bad communication in the workplace with these features:
- Break down projects into tasks and sub-tasks.
- Assign people to specific tasks with specific deadlines.
- Create a centralized written record of relevant project developments.
- Submit work for review and see the feedback all in one spot.
- Store files and (in some cases) even passwords for commonly used software.
I even use project management software for my own personal projects because it just makes everything easier to manage, even though I’m the only person who ever sees the notes.
You have some great options out there. I’ve used all four of these at one point or another and can confirm they get the job done:
- Basecamp: it’s perfect for teams of 10+ people and costs a flat fee of $120 per month. It even offers discounts for educators. It focuses on getting the basics right—and it comes with a free plan with a capacity for 3 projects for those testing the waters.
- Freedcamp: A discounted competitor of Basecamp, Freedcamp comes with a fantastic free version and some very affordable plans.
- Asana: A favorite platform for marketing agencies, Asana focuses on framing all of the common project management features according to time—every task and sub-task has a progress bar and it’s the “calendar view” is a widely used feature. It’s expensive, though, and the free version isn’t very robust.
- Trello: The most popular free project management software out there, Trello uses an intuitive drag-and-drop interface that lets you “move” tasks into various stages of completion based on progress. I find it a little too granular, but many people swear by it.
That’s it! Neither you nor your team need to suffer the consequences of bad communication in the workplace. Communicate in groups, create a written record for everything important, and don’t be afraid to clarify anything. Keep correspondence in plain view and you’ll eliminate 50% of potential confusion right off the bat.