Combating Miscommunication in the Workplace

In many organizations, miscommunication acts like an undercurrent of inefficiency, tugging away at limited resources and dragging down performance. Although its pull may seem slight, miscommunication between staff can have unexpectedly disastrous effects.   Miscommunication among healthcare employees, for instance, often leads to improperly written prescriptions.  According to the Joint Commission, such miscommunication “harms an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States each year, [and results] in upward of $3.5 billion in extra medical costs.”   In this way, miscommunication can affect an entire organization, through outcomes like incorrectly ordered materials and other production breakdowns. Furthermore, employee engagement wanes in the face of poor communication.  This is because employees who don’t have a strong understanding of their own role often struggle to stay passionately dedicated to their work.   When they feel they cannot excel due to communication issues beyond their control, cynicism often poisons an employee’s mindset.

Nobody wins when miscommunication strikes. The Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health found that the lack of two-way communication is the #2 cause of stress in the American workplace.  Clearly, improving communication can create a better work environment for your employees.

On problem is that many people fail to distinguish between information and communication.  In their book Effective Internal Communication, Lyn Smith and Pamela Mounter write that, especially for managers, “Information and communication can be mistaken for the same thing.  Information is not necessarily processed at the receiving end; dispatch does not automatically lead to results.” True communication cannot be one-sided and effective at the same time.  To truly communicate a message requires active focus on all sides. Listeners must actively draw themselves back to the topic at hand when their focus wanders, and speakers must monitor their audience to see if their message is sinking in.  Below, you’ll find a few strategies for effective communication.

Techniques for Avoiding Miscommunication:

  • Allow thinking time. Many speakers believe that they must fill all empty space, or lose their audience.  The next time you’re delivering a message, ask if there are any questions, and pause for three deep breaths.  Sometimes it takes that long for a question to rise to mind.
  • Require active listening. To make sure that your audience is following you, ask them to repeat your directions or ideas in their own words.  This technique clarifies incorrect interpretations before they are passed on to others.
  • Be Specific and Set the Next Step. As you communicate, be honest and particular about what you mean.  Once your message has been transmitted (which you will, of course, check by asking your listeners to repeat back your ideas), you can set a deadline or next step so that everyone knows where to go from here.
  • Consider the Emotional Environment. Communication often fails when emotions run high. It is difficult for anyone to listen when they have steam coming out of their ears, so be empathetic about how your audience feels.  Strive to set a positive emotional background, especially when you have an important message to deliver.
  • Be Selective about your Audience. As you get the word out, make sure to include all people who are involved in the process or project.  Communicating directly with all the people involved will limit the ‘whisper down the lane’ affect.
  • Follow up Verbal Communication with Written Communication. Walk triumphantly away from that big meeting—walk directly to your desk, that is, to send follow-up emails to confirm what was agreed upon and name the next steps.

Finally, remember that clear communication is a skill that requires practice.  As you develop procedures and protocols to support excellent office communication, accept that there will be hiccups along the way.  Once good communication practices are in place, new policies can be smoothly implemented without as many growing pains.  Even better: your employees will feel they are “in the loop.”

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