Predictable Communication Breakdowns

“The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Effective communication is one of the keys to individual and organizational success. However, when asked, “Can you predict a future communication breakdown?” most answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

It doesn’t take a psychic to predict the future. When someone hasn’t provided the correct information in the last four monthly reports, one can anticipate that the future will bring more of the same. When you needed to hound the members of another department to provide you with necessary data, and have done this every time they have worked on a particular type of project, you can anticipate that the next time that kind of project arises, you will to need to hound them again.

When we take a step back and look for patterns, predictable communication breakdowns are easy to identify. Yet, we allow them to take place, even when we know they will happen in the future.

The key word in the previous statement is “allow.” In my experience as a trainer and performance coach, many people have taken umbrage with the word, “allow,” initially claiming, “I do not ‘allow’ communication breakdowns.” They even passionately proclaim, “I’m the victim, not the cause of the problem!”

However, when I probe a bit deeper, I simply need to ask them to identify a future breakdown of communication, which incidentally, most people can do without hesitation. At which point, I respectfully respond, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If you allow breakdowns to happen, when you knew they would happen, you must take some responsibility for allowing the breakdown to be repeated.”

People allow breakdowns for a variety of reasons, but fear is the number one driver. People fear that conflict will result if they try to address the source of the communication issues. They fear that they will have to deal with an angry individual…and who wants to do that? They fear that they will somehow damage the relationship. They may even believe that the individual is closed to feedback and thus, there’s no reason to approach them.

Some people fear dealing with the issues causing breakdowns because they feel it is inappropriate to give feedback to someone who is at a higher or in another department. Regardless of the source of the breakdown, they must be addressed.

Communication breakdowns can be caused by other reasons, such as:

-Different personality styles
-Inaccessibility or too busy to communicate
-Mistrust and assumptions
-Not understanding the time pressures of other areas
-No clear communication channels or undefined roles
-Over-reliance on e-mail
-Conflicting priorities and personal agendas
-Poor attitudes and a lack of team mindset
-Information overload

Behaviors that are tolerated will be repeated

When people do not address communication breakdowns, the same issues that created stress are likely to create stress in the future. Individuals and organizations suffer when breakdowns are allowed to continue.

Impacts include:
-People avoiding other individuals and bypassing the system
-Mistakes are repeated
-Deadlines are missed as time is wasted
-People are surprised in meetings
-Customers complain and leave
-Individuals over-document their work to protect themselves
-Finger-pointing and blaming
-Repetitive processes and duplication of work
-Poor quality and productivity

If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, you really won’t have time to do it right the second. Individuals need to shift from a reactive mindset to a proactive approach to improving communication. Take a minute to identify some past communication breakdowns. Then ask yourself if these breakdowns represent a pattern of breakdowns. If so, are they likely to be repeated in the future? You know what you need to do next…

Remember, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Take responsibility for removing the obstacles to the smooth flow of communication. In so doing, you will decrease your stress and improve quality and productivity.