Communication is one of the essential ingredients of successful business management. One of the most important traits of the most successful organizations is a culture that fosters open communication. When there is more open communication between the various levels in an organization or between teams and functions, the level of organizational productivity is also high. Otherwise, communication barriers can hurt productivity by giving rise to bottlenecks. Apart from that poor organizational communication can also hurt employee morale. The importance of communication with regards to management and business operations has been highlighted by research. It becomes even critical during the times of a crisis when the organization is undergoing a major change like a merger or when some other organization-wide change is in process. Good communication ensures the smooth operation of organizational processes. It also ensures higher synchronization and alignment between organizational objectives and staff performance. While managing good communication throughout the organization ensures a higher success rate, it is more of a challenge that few businesses have nailed. Several barriers to communication exist and hurt organizational productivity and employee success.
Various types of communication barriers
In this article, we will discuss the various types of communication barriers that lead to loss of performance, give rise to misunderstandings or even ruin employee morale.
Distorting or withholding information to manage a person’s reaction is called filtering. This can happen due to several reasons and the most prominent one is fear. For example, the sales have been poor and the sales manager keeps the figures from the vice president in order to avoid making him angry. Many times people manipulate information to make it appear more favorable even if it affects decision making.
Many times, it is the gatekeeper who filters the message and does not let the complete message reach the intended receiver. For example, a CEO’s secretary may withhold some important information and not let it reach him.
Filtering does not let people have complete information that they need to make important decisions. People do not get a complete picture of the situation which affects their ability to make critical decisions.
How to avoid communication distortion due to filtering?
To avoid the distortion that happens due to filtering, people should use more than one channel for communication. They should also not depend on just one source for critical information and instead consult more than one source to verify the credibility of the information received. This reduces the effect of filtering and you will also get to know who is filtering the message and keeping some critical piece of information from you.
Inside most organizations, people tend to filter bad news during upward communication. The executives and leaders should also understand that people below them generally do not feel very confident when sharing bad news. One way that you can curb this tendency inside your organization is by rewarding employees that communicate more clearly regardless of the type of news – good or bad. When people filter a message, they generally use the following criteria:
- Past Experience:
People use their past experiences to select whether to filter communication or not. For example, if the sender was rewarded in the past for sending such news then it is fine to send it. Otherwise, the sender will filter it if the sender was punished for sending such news in the past.
- Knowledge/perception of the speaker: Is the receiver interested in receiving the news? Is the receiver more concerned with feeling good or is he concerned about how useful the information is?
- Emotional state, involvement with the topic, level of attention:
The fear of failure or being criticized often stops senders from sending a message. Many times people also fail to understand the significance of a message or just do not have the expertise required to decode it. Several times people do not feel comfortable decoding a message or understanding its significance. Apart from that personal concerns can also affect the sender’s ability to judge the value of the message.
Filtering does not just result in lost communication but it can also result in miscommunication because each receiver uses his/her own understanding to decode the message and then develops his own version of the communication. So, the meaning of the same communication becomes different for each person and finally, the entire meaning and relevance of the original communication may be lost due to the distortion caused by filtering.
Selective perception is also a type of filtering. People filter what they see or hear to suit their own needs. Most of the time people don’t do it consciously. One problem is that most of the time we are bombarded with stimuli and that leaves us unable to pay equal attention to everything. This makes people select based on their needs. Our past experience also affects our perception of things and makes us create assumptions about how things are. In a highly complex culture, people use selective perception as a time saver.
Suppose a boss handed over a tall list to his subordinate and the subordinate found it too demanding and assumed some of the tasks on the list could wait. He makes the selections based on his past experience. One of these tasks was urgent and the boss believed the subordinate understood the urgency in his words. The boss assumed that his subordinate would finish the urgent ones first. However, the subordinate made the choices to suit his own needs. The boss did not clearly state the tasks that were urgent and needed to be completed first and assumed his subordinate knew it already. So, both people are using selective perception in this situation. However, since selective perception distorted communication, it led to misunderstandings.
When the time available to process a piece of information is less than what the situation demands, information overload occurs. All types of communication cannot be processed easily and conveniently. Many times an individual might need to do internal calculations to process the information. However, in several situations, he may not be given sufficient time to complete the interactions and internal calculations required to process the information which will lead inevitably to information overload. Every day we receive information from countless sources. These sources or channels can be societal, professional or personal. Societal channels include the advertisements that we come across in our daily lives. Professional channels include email, memos, voice mails or other forms of communication we receive from our colleagues. Others are the personal channels like the messages or the communication we receive from our near and dear ones. When you look at the complete picture, you will see that you are daily receiving much more information than you can possibly digest. This leads to an imbalance where the level of supply is much higher than your processing capacity. This state of imbalance is what you call information overload.
Experts believe that information overload is common in the tech age. The world of technology is continuously expanding and there is always too much information for people to handle. People derive the information from several sources including TV, newspapers, magazines, emails (both wanted and unwanted). There is always some source feeding you information and there is always much more than you can comfortably handle leading to the state of imbalance you call information overload. Even the search engines that generate a formidably large number of results for each search are adding to this problem. When your sources of information are fragmented, it also affects your work because you work in a fragmented fashion with half of your mind on something else than what you must focus upon. This hampers with your creativity and affects your productivity and mental acuity negatively.
Now, take the example of an average worker who sits inside a cubicle. Imagine a situation where he is busy on the phone talking to a supplier or customer when suddenly a voice notification on his computer screen tells him he has received a new email in his inbox. While talking on the phone, he opens the email to scan through its contents and the next moment another reminder on his screen tells him he has a meeting to attend. He misses half of the conversation he is having on the phone and fails to note some critical information. However, he has to attend a meeting and so he cannot ask the person on the other side to repeat. Therefore, he selects to proceed with the part of the conversation he heard. Now you can imagine the quality of his decisions when he is processing as much information at the same time.
Our emotions also affect our communication and can have a negative impact on it. Possible differences between two people communicating with each other can also give rise to disconnects and lead to a communication failure. Emotional disconnects are a type of communication barrier when either the sender or receiver is upset about the topic at hand or some other unrelated topic or event that may have happened earlier. For effective communication, the sender and the receiver must remain open to speaking and listening to one another despite any possible personal differences or varying opinions. To achieve the goal of clear and effective communication, both parties must be able to put their emotions aside. An emotionally upset receiver generally tends to ignore or even distort what the sender might be saying. The same is true about the sender who may find himself unable to present his ideas or feelings effectively when he is emotionally upset.
Lack of source credibility:
Communications can get derailed in some situations due to a lack of source credibility or familiarity. This is especially true of situations where humor is involved. At the workplace, communication must be direct and honest and one should not intend to hurt through communication. Sarcasm and irony can be potentially harmful when used in the context of business communications. It is why business managers must keep such communication out of the workplace. Even if sarcasm offers limited benefits, the potential harms outweigh the benefits and can even spell disaster and hurt worker morale. Lack of familiarity with the sender can also cause communication to be misinterpreted and then hurt relationships. This also happens when the sender lacks credibility. In such cases, the likelihood of the message not getting through is very high. The receivers are generally suspicious of the senders they do not trust. If they receive a message from such a sender they suspect his intentions behind the message and such messages are poorly received. Receivers filter such messages where the sender has a poor record. If the sender has given rise to false alarms in the past or communicated erroneous messages, his future messages will also be filtered.
Gossip is common across workplaces. These gossip networks found across most organizations are called grapevines. This grapevine is considered to be a considerable source of information by a lot of employees. Research by Crampton in 1998 found that 70% of all the organizåtional communication was carried out at the grapevine level. However, from the managerial point of view, the informal structure of the grapevine is an obstruction to clear and effective communication. It is the grassroots structure of that grapevine that makes it more credible than the official sources of information in the eyes of the employees. Grapevines also become a channel for spreading miscommunication in several situations. Politically minded people use it for self-promotion and for disseminating miscommunication. Grapevines also lack specific senders or discovering the real sender or origin of communication can be difficult in the case of grapevines. Managers who understand the power of grapevine can manipulate it to reduce the spread of politics and miscommunication. They use the grapevine to send official messages quickly and accurately and reduce the power of grapevine to spread miscommunication.
Semantics is the study of meaning in communication. The same words can have different meanings for different people or have no meaning at all for someone else. You must have heard of how companies use business jargon for internal communication. Jargons are specialized terms that professional groups use for communication. Experts use it as a shorthand and when used efficiently jargon can be a highly effective method of communication. Jargons mostly include unfamiliar terms, abstract words, nonexistent words, acronyms, and abbreviations, with an occasional euphemism thrown in for good measure. Every trade, profession, and organization uses its own jargon. Jargon seems to be a convenient way of communication at first but this is not always the case since many times the use of jargon can obscure the message. It is not always clever to use jargon because under the situations where your receiver is unfamiliar with these terms, the message will not be clearly articulated If you are talking to someone in the same trade like a specialist talking to another, it is fine to make use of plenty of jargons to communicate. In that case, the use of jargon makes your communication effective. If an IT expert is talking to another IT expert, their communication can be full of jargon. The same can be expected of the communication between two lawyers and two medical professionals. However, when these people are talking to someone outside their core group, they will make use of plain and simple language to make the communication understandable to the listeners. People should use standard language if the listener or receiver does not understand their jargon or does not belong to their core professional group.
Gender differences do not just give rise to different communication styles but also become communication barriers. Across various organizations, men and women work together daily but their different communication styles tend to work against them. For example, while women seek answers to their questions before starting a project, men tend to jump right into the middle of it. Another important difference that has been recognized in their communication styles as that while men tend to use more sports metaphors in their communication, women draw analogies from their homes. Gender Policy adviser Dee Norton notes that promoting the best possible communication between men and women is important. While moving between male and female cultures, people need to adapt their behavior in order to gain the best results from the situation. According to Norton, the most successful organizations of the future will be the organizations with leaders and team members who understand, respect and apply the rules of gender culture appropriately. Awareness of these differences helps people work with these differences rather than around them. For example, in the case of men their focus is more on competition, data, and orders in their communication, whereas, in the case of women, they tend to focus more on cooperation, intuition, and requests. While both styles can be effective in various situations, understanding these differences is critical to avoid misunderstandings.
Moreover, words tend to be interpreted differently across cultures and so it is important to understand the audience before communicating. People’s interpretation of words is affected by several factors including age, education, and culture. If you pay less consideration to your audience, the chances of miscommunication grow higher. Moreover, when communicating in a cross-cultural context, it is necessary to pay attention to how various words are interpreted across various cultures since apart from varied interpretations of various words across different cultures, the cultural norms related to nonverbal communication also differ across cultures. Eliminating jargon also helps ensure that our words are not interpreted differently than as we intend them to. Another factor that helps avoid misinterpretation is focusing on the audience rather than talking to oneself.
The use of biased language can offend or stereotype others based on their personal or group affiliation. For example, the use of Black Attorney in communication whether written or verbal should be avoided and replaced with Attorney. There is a long list of offensive words that people should avoid using in workplaces and use more neutral or gender-neutral words. One important thing about effective communication is that it is clear, factual, goal-oriented and also respectful at the same time. People should avoid using words that belittle or stereotype others. For example, referring to a person as a diabetic reduces him to just that one character and will surely make him feel offended. The use of such languages poisons the communication process. The use of Insulting language violates the public and private standards of decency. Inside several companies, new employees are offered communication guidance when they join. They are provided with the guidelines related to speech and conduct inside the organization. These guidelines work as a solid guideline for effective and respectful communication at the workplace. People should use the human resources generated guidelines when communicating at their workplace and also remember that something they think is respectful may not necessarily be taken the same way by others.