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Navigating communication breakdowns at work

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

November 14, 2023

We’ve all been there: a project takes an unexpected turn, and the culprit seems all too familiar—a ‘communication breakdown.’ These breakdowns, though varied, can be a significant hurdle in any workplace, potentially leading to costly mistakes and interpersonal conflicts. However, understanding the causes and implementing solutions can pave the way for smoother communication.

We’ll explore the intricacies of communication breakdowns, their root causes, and, most importantly, practical tips to foster effective communication in the workplace.

What is a communication breakdown?

Communication breakdowns are instances where information fails to be conveyed effectively, leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and, ultimately, disrupted workflow. It’s crucial to recognize that these breakdowns can manifest in diverse forms, making diagnosis and prevention challenging. By delving into the nature of communication breakdowns, teams can better equip themselves to address and overcome these challenges.

Clear signs of a communication breakdown

Communication breakdowns often start as subtle ripples before turning into disruptive waves. Recognizing the signs early is akin to reading the map of your project’s communication landscape. Keep a keen eye on the following indicators to navigate potential breakdowns and ensure your team sails smoothly through collaborative waters.

1. Repeated misunderstandings

When team members consistently interpret information differently, it’s a clear signal of a communication breakdown. This can manifest in varied ways, from conflicting task understanding to misaligned project goals. Pay attention to recurrent instances where messages are lost in translation or not comprehensively grasped.

2. Missed deadlines or delayed deliverables

One of the tangible outcomes of poor communication is the failure to meet deadlines. If tasks are consistently delayed, or deadlines are missed despite initial agreements, it’s time to investigate. A breakdown in communication might be obstructing the flow of essential information, impeding the team’s ability to meet its commitments.

3. Team members feeling out of the loop

A cohesive team is one where every member feels connected and informed. If team members express sentiments of being out of the loop or uninformed about crucial project details, it’s a warning sign. This feeling of isolation can breed frustration, hinder collaboration, and ultimately lead to diminished team performance.

4. Conflicting information across teams

In larger projects or organizations with multiple teams, conflicting information can arise when different units receive contradictory directives. If there’s a lack of synchronization in the messages conveyed to various teams, it indicates a breakdown in the coordination of communication across the organization.

5. Increased frequency of conflict or tension

Communication breakdowns often pave the way for conflict. If you notice a sudden surge in interpersonal tensions or conflicts within the team, it’s worth investigating the root cause. More often than not, unresolved communication issues are simmering beneath the surface, fueling these conflicts.

6. Decreased productivity and innovation

When communication channels falter, productivity and innovation often take a hit. Team members may struggle to collaborate effectively, leading to a decline in the quality and efficiency of work. If you observe a drop in productivity or a lack of innovative solutions, consider communication breakdown as a potential culprit.

7. Rumors and misinformation spread

In an environment where communication is not clear, rumors and misinformation can quickly fill the void. Team members may start relying on hearsay rather than accurate information, leading to a distorted understanding of project objectives and strategies.

8. Lack of engagement in meetings or discussions

An engaged team is one that actively participates in meetings and discussions. If you observe a decline in participation, with team members appearing disinterested or disengaged, it could be a sign that the communication channels are not effectively conveying the importance of these interactions.

What causes communication breakdowns?

Effective communication is the backbone of any successful workplace. However, several common culprits can contribute to breakdowns:

Lack of communication plans

Every project manager should have a detailed client communication plan in their toolkit. This document lets everyone know where, when, and how to communicate with one another. This should cover all team members, managers, and stakeholders.

Without a detailed communication plan, projects lack consistent communication and often suffer from conflicting messaging. This puts unnecessary strain on stakeholder relationships and usually results in inefficiencies in the workflow.

Unclear roles

Establishing a clear hierarchy and distribution of responsibilities is crucial for ensuring everyone knows who to contact for what and the kinds of information each person needs access to. Obviously, a Junior Designer and a Director of Strategy shouldn’t be contacted about the same issues, nor should they need access to the exact same info.

Oversharing and undersharing can each create communication nightmares for all involved. Creating clear reporting relationships can go a long way in streamlining relevant communication.

Poor examples from leadership

Leaders are responsible for setting expectations of communication from a cultural standpoint. Without leaders setting an example from the top, their reports are often unsure of how they should communicate with one another. When a business is struggling with communication, you can bet its leaders are as guilty as any of not living up to the standards the company is failing to put in place.

Whether it’s a team leader or a project leader, communication issues trickle down easily. Don’t let the poor habits of your leaders go overlooked.

Avoiding a communication breakdown

Without clear and precise communication, teams struggle to define, align on, and meet their goals. Changing your team’s communication won’t necessarily be easy or quick, but if you tackle it both from a process and cultural standpoint, it can be done. Try these tips.

Require a communication plan for all projects

No project should commence without an explicit communication plan. The first few your team creates may be a bit of work, but many projects will follow similar rules of engagement and can be easily turned into templates. Small projects may not require as much length or detail, but all projects, regardless of size, should have a communication plan in place.

Your communication plan should include protocols for the following:

  • What to communicate for specific events. Define your deliverables for any project events (e.g. weekly stand-ups, retrospectives, kick-off meetings, etc.) Also, detail who needs to be updated for each and how.
  • What to communicate to stakeholders. Identify who your stakeholders are, what information they need, as well as how and when they should be contacted.
  • What to communicate incrementally. Many teams provide daily or weekly progress updates. Be sure to identify what information these reports may include, how they will be shared, and with whom.

Use communication tools

You have various tools and channels at your disposal for communicating with your team. Decide when/when not to use email, phone calls, video calls, chat apps, and in-person discussions. Avoid extremes, i.e. everyone sitting in in-person meetings all day or communicating only through long, untrackable email chains.

An example of a summary of protocol here would be: Phone calls are for urgent messages only. There will be a recurring video call with clients once a week. Email is used for sharing reports with external stakeholders only. And internal discussions should take place in a designated team chat app to ensure conversations are transparent, searchable, and actionable.

You may also wish to create expectations on how/when/if to reply.

Use collaborate tools

Great communication leads to better collaboration, especially when it’s enhanced with the right collaboration tools. Collaborative project management tools like Backlog provide your team with a centralized location to work on, notify, review, and complete projects.

Not only can you streamline your communication, but you can ensure accountability, transparency, and increased productivity across all projects.

Develop a culture of communication from the top down

Enacting change from the top down is the best way to ensure cohesion and adherence. Start with training your executives and top-level managers. Then ensure they know how to carry out the strategy on their teams. Existing employees will need re-training, while new employees should learn all protocols and best practices during onboarding.

Your employee review process, as well as your company’s hiring strategy, should also put an emphasis on communication skills.

Improve interpersonal skills

The above planning and procedural changes are just one side of the communication coin. The other is enhancing your team’s interpersonal skills.

Most of the time, we’re fairly unconscious about our communication habits. We probably formed most of our habits early on, learning them without much critical thought from our family and friends. Then, we picked up new habits as we started our careers and learned to work with our first team. Many of us only become aware of our communication styles as we meet people with different ones.

The process of becoming aware of and taking control of your communication style can be a struggle, but it’s one of those tasks that can have transferable benefits throughout our lives, personally and professionally.

Interpersonal skills we all need include:

Communication breakdowns that take place because of a lack of interpersonal skills can be the most difficult for team members to address. It requires a level of maturity, willingness, and humility that many will find challenging. Mostly because when it comes to our own personalities, our egos tend to want to be ‘right’ above all else. Having a skilled HR Manager can go a long way in helping to address this area of communication.

Examples of communication breakdowns

Let’s delve into a few real-world scenarios. From project details lost in translation to team members unintentionally working on conflicting tasks, these examples illustrate how easily communication can veer off course. Learning from these cases can illuminate potential pitfalls to avoid.

Example 1: Lost in Translation

In a multinational project involving teams from different regions, a critical project proposal suffered from a classic case of misinterpretation. The initial proposal outlined a specific timeline for deliverables, but due to language nuances, the teams in Asia understood it differently than their counterparts in Europe. The result? Missed deadlines, frustrated stakeholders, and a valuable lesson in the importance of clarity in cross-cultural communication.

Lesson Learned: Clearly define and document project terms, timelines, and expectations, especially in diverse teams. Encourage open communication for clarification to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Example 2: Conflicting Tasks

In an agile development environment, two sub-teams unknowingly took on conflicting tasks during a sprint. This misalignment surfaced during the sprint review, causing delays and impacting overall project timelines. The breakdown occurred because of insufficient communication about task priorities and dependencies between the two teams.

Lesson Learned: Implement a robust system for task coordination and ensure that teams are aware of the dependencies between their work and the work of others. Regular sync-ups and a shared project management tool, such as Backlog, can prevent such misunderstandings.

Example 3: The Email Chain Abyss

In a fast-paced project, crucial details about a client’s specific requirements were communicated solely through a lengthy email chain. As team members responded and forwarded the thread, important information became buried in the conversation. This led to misinformed decisions, rework, and an unhappy client.

Lesson Learned: Utilize dedicated communication channels for critical project information. Consider adopting project management tools that centralize discussions and information, making it easily accessible and reducing the risk of information getting lost.

Example 4: Ambiguous Reporting

During a quarterly review meeting, team leaders presented progress reports with ambiguous data and unclear projections. This left stakeholders puzzled about the project’s actual status and future trajectory. The communication breakdown stemmed from a lack of standardized reporting protocols and insufficient guidance on presenting data.

Lesson Learned: Establish clear reporting protocols for all project updates. Define key performance indicators (KPIs) and provide guidelines on how to present data consistently. This ensures that stakeholders receive clear, actionable insights.

Example 5: Unacknowledged Stakeholders

In a large-scale project, key stakeholders were inadvertently left out of crucial communication loops. Their insights and feedback were not sought, leading to a misalignment of project goals and stakeholder expectations. The oversight had implications for the project’s success and strained relationships with these key contributors.

Lesson Learned: Develop a comprehensive stakeholder communication plan. Regularly identify and update the list of stakeholders, and ensure that they are actively engaged throughout the project lifecycle. This prevents valuable input from going unnoticed.


Communication breakdowns are inevitable, but rather than dwelling on frustration and fallout, focus on empowering your team to become better communicators and collaborators. By implementing the tips and insights shared in this article, you pave the way for a workplace where effective communication is the norm. Remember, the journey to better communication is ongoing, and with the right strategies, your team can navigate any breakdown with resilience and agility.

This post was originally published on September 18, 2018, and updated most recently on November 14, 2023.



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