The Breakdown of Communication in the Workplace

What is in your professional toolbox? EVERY job regardless of industry requires a toolbox. Your toolbox may not look like a traditional gray box, and may not house hammers and screwdrivers, but everyone has one. Maybe your tool box includes your expertise in your field of study. Maybe it includes specialized software, performance measuring assessments, scientific analysis or the ability to write software code. None-the-less everyone in the workplace has a toolbox they use every day. Regardless of what yours looks like or contains, the most valuable tools you can have in your personal and professional toolbox are exceptional communication tools. Indeed, the single greatest hindrance to growth in anyone’s career or, in any organization is poor communication – both up and down the ladder.

The results of poor communication in an organization are plentiful. They are often subtle, insidious and can be devastating.  They can include:

  • Doing the wrong work
  • Doing the right work incorrectly
  • Confusion about objective
  • Confusion about what is needed to complete the task – which results in
  • Wasting time, equipment, resources in general
  • Hostility and resentment within the workforce or toward management
  • Missed deadlines
  • Poor job performance
  • False information being disseminated
  • Collapse of teamwork or team spirit
  • Lost customers
  • Lost revenues
  • Frustration and depression within the workforce – which results in
  • Increased medical benefits costs
  • Ineffective or inconsistent work result
  • All of which can combine to create a Toxic working environment

Oh my gosh!  Just listing these creates stress!  In her book, Communicate to Keep ‘Em, Author Pamela Jette says, “Effective communication is like the thread that runs through a strand of pearls – when it’s doing its job, it’s invisible. If it breaks, everything falls apart.”

So, it would benefit us to prevent the break-down of communication, so as to prevent that list of potential catastrophes. The question is, how do we do that? What is preventing us from communicating effectively? It would be easy if there were one, core, cause to poor communication in the workplace.  Then we could prevent that cause from every arising.  If it did arise, we could address it specifically and snuff it out, so it was never a problem again. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s not that easy. The causes of poor communication – the barriers that prevent us from communicating effectively are many, varied and often subtle.  They might include:

Language Barriers

A difference in language is perhaps the greatest barrier to effective communication, in the workplace or anywhere - even if we think we are bilingual. One of the most chilling moments of the cold war era is Nikita Khrushchev’s open statement to the American people, “We will bury you,” which was taken by the American public as a real and imminent nuclear threat.  In historical hindsight, a more accurate translation of his words would have been “We will overtake you,” which historians have indicated more probably meant economic superiority.  Economic superiority – not nuclear annihilation.  Well, that context difference might be construed as important…  With a language barrier, inappropriate word usage, poor phrasing or inaccurate translations can complicate or completely derail effective communication

Poor Listening

Poor listening is probably the most common barrier to connection – a simple lack of attention on the receiver’s part.  It is normal and natural for people to unconsciously drift off if the message they are hearing is hard to understand, if it is perceived as dull or if they believe it has not direct bearing on them.  The sad reality is that simply too few of us listen well! 

Incorrect Filtering

Another very common barrier to effective communication is filtering.  Filtering is the screening of a message before that message is passed on to someone else.  The business world comes inherent with many of built in filters: gatekeepers, secretaries, assistants, receptionists, voicemail – even our own staff that we utilize to trickle down a message.  Each of these can distort a message as it travels the communication maze.  Often, those same built-in filters may also 'translate' your receiver's ideas and message through their own filters before passing them back on to you.  Therefore, information can become distorted through filters twice! – both in the outbound and the inbound path.

Physical Barriers

The most obvious and common physical barriers to communication are different branches or remote locations, which prevent the most meaningful of connections, face to face conversation.  It doesn’t have to be distance, though - other physical barriers might include marked out sales or business territories which are often seen as empires of fiefdoms.  An excellent example of this would be jurisdictional squabbles in a criminal investigation, when perhaps the local enforcement is investigating side by side with county, state or federal agents. Even within federal agencies when you might have the FBI working simultaneously with INA or DEA, each zealously protecting its information and evidence. Another physical challenge could be background noise on production floors, or large, cavernous working areas, divided by cloth covered, sound-proofed cubicles. These create physical barriers as do closed office doors. Any of these physical challenges can prevent meaningful dialog.


One of the most frustrating barriers to communication is emotions.  You see, every message contains at least two components: the content (the subject matter) and an emotional interpretation of that content or subject matter.  Furthermore, that emotional interpretation could be either the sender’s, the receivers or both!  When we are engrossed in emotion, we have a difficult time sending a message objectively and an equal amount of trouble listening to or absorbing a message objectively. 


Stress is another profound barrier to effective communication. When we are under stress, it is tough to clear enough of our brain to process a message.  There’s often simply too much mental “white noise” cluttering our comprehension.  Thus, we fail to grasp the essence of the message or communication

Differences in Perception

Differences in perception create a more complex complication.  Any two people who have experienced the same event will process that moment in time differently with unique mental images and memories of that event, based on their own life experiences.  As senders, we choose the details that we perceive as important and focus our expressing on those.  As receivers, we try to fit the inbound message into our existing paradigm and, if the information doesn’t quite fit, we tend to distort that incoming message rather than adjusting our own parameters.

Differing Backgrounds and Cultures

Just like perception differences, differing backgrounds can be complex and one of the hardest communication barriers to overcome. These might include differences in age, education, gender, social status, economic position, temperament, health, beauty, popularity, religion, or political beliefs. All of these could play a role in how a message is sent or received. Cultural differences are another background variation that can create obstacles.  While language (as we have discussed) is the most obvious of cultural challenges, there are more subtle obstacles that are just as insidious in derailing effective exchanges.  Communication norms that are considered natural and acceptable in one culture might be considered offensive in another.  That could include sustained, direct eye contact, physical proximity, use of the familiar name as compared to a more formal address.  Without understanding the culture of the person with whom we are communicating, that exchange could be a cultural minefield and undermine the potential connection completely.


Gender differences can be monumental as well. There are real and documented differences in the neuro-structure of male brains and female brains.  Men’s brains are more mono-directional and process communication in a very linear manner.  Whereas, women’s brains are more omnidirectional and process everything in a very interconnected manner.  While men focus foremost on facts and data, a woman’s mind will focus first on feelings and relationships.  It seems the “he said – she said” debate has been causing misunderstandings since time began.

I have the opportunity to travel throughout the United States and internationally.  I have seen this consistently in my travels as I work with organizations to improve their communication and prevent conflict.  I see so many organizations, companies, federal agencies, state governments, unions, city governments, not-for-profits, churches, school systems – all struggling with the same issues, the same unnecessary and sometimes petty conflicts, and the same fractured communication, whether it involves external customers or internal customers.

This is why I created my Ten Building Blocks of Master Communicators©, to steep-down the core competencies of effective, respectful communication in the 21st Century, into a simple, easy to understand progression.  I have discovered that effective communication is built upon a foundation of core concepts and skills – which I have streamlined in my Building Blocks.  I will be digging into some of those building blocks in articles over the next few months as we head toward the 2017 National Women’s Leadership Conference where I am excited to have the opportunity to share the entire Ten Building Blocks with you.

When you hone the most important tool in your personal and professional tool box, your communication skills, you will begin to see an immediate difference in how productive and stress-free your working environment becomes.

References (2)

Psychology Today: Brain Differences Between Genders: Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D: 2014
University of Cambridge: Males and females differ in specific brain structures: Ruigrok, Suckling, Baron-Cohen: 2015

About the Author

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer, The Colonel’s Daughter, Lauren Schieffer, CSP gained a profound independence and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The lessons she learned from “The Colonel” have helped her make smart decisions and overcome adversity with humility and a sense of humor.  Lauren helps global audiences communicate respectfully and avoid unnecessary conflict. She has spoken in seven countries to associations, organizations, federal, state and local governments, and Fortune 500 companies.

On a side note, Lauren will be speaking on Saturday, October 14, at the National Women’s Leadership Conference in Lancaster, PA.  This event is sponsored by the American Business Women’s Association and is open to both members and non-members.  For more information about this year’s event, contact ABWA at