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Dealing with communication breakdowns at work

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

September 18, 2018

We’ve all been there: something on a recent project didn’t go as planned, and you’ve settled on a familiar cause — there was a ‘communication breakdown.’ Communication breakdowns take many forms, making them difficult to diagnose, and even more difficult to prevent. But, if left to fester, they often lead to costly project mistakes and interpersonal conflicts. Luckily, with a little understanding and a few tools, you can address these issues easily.

What causes communication breakdowns?

Communication breakdowns can obviously stem from a variety of organizational issues, and it would be impossible to cover them all. However, there are a few common culprits we should all be aware of. When tightening up your team communication, watch out for the following.

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, project’s 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 their leaders are as guilty as any in not living up to the standards the company is failing to put in place.

Whether its 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, like Typetalk, 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 project management 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:

  • Verbal communication. What and how we say things.
  • Non-verbal communication. Body language.
  • Listening skills. How we interpret others.
  • Emotional intelligence. Understanding and managing our own emotions and the emotions of others.
  • Teamwork. The ability to work with others.
  • Conflict resolution. Resolving disagreements in a positive way.
  • Problem solving. Analyzing situations to find the best possible solution.

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.


Communication breakdowns are something every person will have to deal with at some point in their career. Rather than focusing on the frustration and fall-out that can occur, make sure you’re doing what you can to help your team become better communicators and collaborators. Hopefully, with these tips and insights, you can find a path to better communication.

For more blogs on addressing communication issues, check out our series on The Seven Barriers of Communication.



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