7 Common Communication Challenges With Surprisingly Simple Solutions
January 27, 2023
Remember that meeting where someone brought up an issue that was resolved three weeks ago, the whole team rehashed it again anyway, and the air in the room just felt thinner and thinner as the conversation went on?
Oh no… were you that someone? 😬
Communication isn’t always easy, even between two people. Fold in time zones, add a pinch of tense deadlines, a sprinkle of jargon, combine myriad personalities, and it’s a wonder we’re able to bake this cake at all.
And while every team’s communication challenges are unique, there are still some common denominators that have simpler solutions than you might think—so let’s get fixing.
1. The Email Deluge
McKinsey research found the average interaction worker spends as much as 28 percent of their day managing email. While some emails contain crucial info, that info can easily be buried under a torrent of other less important messages if there’s no system or strategy to keep communication efficient.
Email is still an important tool used in almost every modern organization, but how it’s used (and how often) makes all the difference. So, how do you stem the flow of needless emails?
Instead of relying on email for sharing internal news or resources, you can streamline messaging by providing a central channel like an intranet that prioritizes truly important news and personalizes employees’ news feeds.
Posting simple, concise weekly departmental recap posts in your company intranet is a great step toward transparency and knowledge sharing, but also communication efficiency. This kind of communication makes the information accessible to those who need or want it, while providing a much-appreciated buffer for those who don’t.
2. Time Zone Issues
Recognize it or not, if you work on a nationally or globally distributed team, you have time zone issues.
Video conferencing helped make distributed work viable at scale. It allows team members to notice facial expressions and body language to determine how others respond to and feel about topics, even if they’re working far apart from one another.
Enterprise messaging apps make it easy to reach anyone on your team instantaneously. They can connect people and applications across vast distances with minimal effort.
Despite the transformational effect both of those advances had on the global workforce, neither can change what time it is. Until that’s possible, organizations will need to lean on asynchronous communication tools and techniques to fill in the gap.
If you work on a distributed team, it can be helpful to default to transparent, asynchronous (async) communication. Effective async communications take some forethought—especially at first, but the payoff is significant.
A good example might be recording a Loom video to demonstrate a new process or product feature instead of demonstrating it live over a video chat or in person. Sharing information this way isn’t just helpful for remote employees; it can also be more efficient for in-office employees to access information at their convenience.
Another example would be sharing meeting notes, slides, and a recording of your most recent town hall meeting, while providing members who weren’t able to attend with an opportunity to share their thoughts and ask questions.
3. Technical Terms and Jargon
Most companies have phrases or terms specific to their organization. Sometimes, even departments or teams within one organization will use the same words, but with completely different meanings.
Some examples include “storyboard,” “pull request,” “national campaign,” “CPC,” or “MVP.”
New and even longstanding employees who work in a different role might not know some essential lingo as they’re discussing their work. Those misunderstandings are usually benign, but they can sometimes lead to significant problems, like a manufacturing mixup or a campaign reaching the wrong audience.
Those are just a few examples; each organization has its own jargon.
Provide an easily accessible breakdown of common terms and phrases your team uses, and the context in which they’re used. This breakdown can be as simple as a spreadsheet with terms and definitions, but a dedicated business glossary is often easier to search and maintain.
4. Virtual Meeting Fatigue
Whether you’re on a remote, hybrid, or in-office team, you’ve probably spent a lot more time in virtual meetings lately. That’s especially true if you or your colleagues struggle to lead effective, engaging meetings and are forced to compensate for that by holding more meetings.
There are many ways a conference call can go wrong—so many, it’s a wonder sometimes that they work at all—yet they’re still one of the most effective ways to bring a team together for high-fidelity communication.
Do your part and ensure you’re prepared for the call, and helped others prepare as well. That preparedness is one part technical, one part professional, and one part personal.
Test your connection beforehand to prevent technical difficulties. If you’re going to need to tether to your cellular connection, or worse, call into the meeting from your phone, it’s best to know that beforehand instead of scrambling at the last moment.
Are your camera and microphone working? Calling in from your bedroom-office with some dirty clothes strewn across the floor? Blur your background, or pick a fun virtual background. Most video conferencing tools have a waiting room where you can do a quick two-second check for any of these issues.
You should also have a clear agenda for the call and make sure everyone is muted when they are not speaking. Value everyone’s time and only focus on relevant matters. If you’re leading the meeting, it can be helpful to let everyone know there will be a Q&A at the end of the call for anyone interested in asking further questions or clarifying miscellaneous information.
This might seem like common sense, but it’s important: understand the purpose and the tone of the meeting you’re joining. If you’re organizing the meeting, make sure you extend that courtesy to invitees. Doing so gives them the opportunity to prepare as well, and can help you lead a more effective and enjoyable call.
5. Lack of Feedback
Feedback is powerful. It’s one of the most valuable things you can give, both as a leader and an individual contributor to your organization. Employees are often more engaged and satisfied with their work when they know the impact it has on their team, the organization, and the world around them.
However, that’s not the only essential form of feedback. Oftentimes, the focus around feedback centers on managerial feedback given to direct reports, but the feedback they share can be just as vital to an organization’s success.
Build feedback into your communication landscape. There are two main categories to focus on here: adding venues and eliminating barriers.
- Add venues to make giving feedback easy. Provide a place for people at all stages of their employee journey to share thoughtful, actionable feedback. 360 reviews and peer reviews are a couple common examples of supporting feedback in a formal setting. Frequent, informal feedback venues are equally important. Some information doesn’t need to (or shouldn’t) wait until a formal feedback session is scheduled. For example, gentle constructive feedback given freely and frequently can help direct reports course correct early, before bad habits or unproductive behaviors grow and manifest themselves as problems.
- Eliminate barriers that might stifle feedback. Barriers can be physical or social. For example, if it’s difficult for frontline employees to communicate trends they’re identifying, the organization will miss out on some key observations. An effective mobile app can help eliminate that barrier. If employees feel as though their feedback won’t be taken seriously, or worse, they might be retaliated against for sharing information that embarrasses leadership, the organization loses out. A policy of transparency and respectful consideration of ideas can go a long way toward encouraging vital feedback.
It’s also important to remember that if you’re leading a team, the feedback you give and solicit not only influences the effectiveness of your team; it also sets an example for others to follow.
6. Grapevine Communication
Grapevine communication is problematic because it can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and even the spread of false information. While there’s no guaranteed way to eliminate grapevine communication entirely, it’s surprisingly simple to keep it at a minimum if you know its root causes.
Two key reasons grapevine communication happens in the first place are:
Lack of transparency: if people feel as though they’re kept in the dark, they’ll almost always try to shine a light around and learn about their surroundings. It’s only natural to want to do that. Unfortunately, that can result in information coming in the form of rumors, hearsay, or other questionable sources.
Poorly-organized communication: sometimes it’s not through anyone’s direct effort that information is hard to find—in fact, a lack of direct effort can get in the way of communication just as easily. When the correct information exists but is nowhere to be found, it doesn’t help anyone.
Foster empathy. Understanding what it’s like to be in a position where the full picture isn’t laid out in front of you is crucial to better organizational communication. What would it feel like to catch bits and pieces of information that seem important?
Default to transparency. Instead of asking “is there a critical reason to share this information with the team,” ask “is there a critical reason not to share this information with the team.” That might sound over-simplified, but it’s a helpful litmus test for nearly any communication.
Centralize communication. When there’s a central source of truth for organizational knowledge, it’s easier for everyone to communicate. People can join conversations with shared context and work together more effectively. Centralizing communication doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone needs to use the same communication tool, but that every channel should be connected to a primary source of information.
7. Communication Overload
While too little communication and information sharing presents a major challenge, too much information is equally burdensome.
We live in a time of always-on availability, where you can reach any colleague across the world instantaneously—but that doesn’t always mean you should. It can feel overwhelming and stressful when documents and messages are shared across too many channels.
The same message could appear several times, in different forms, in different places, and in differing contexts. Each time it appears, it might be slightly (or markedly) different, causing confusion and inefficiency.
But there’s still an enormous amount that must be communicated across an organization. Harnessing, organizing, and delivering it effectively separates great organizational communication from poor.
You can limit information overload by prioritizing what to communicate to whom, and determining where it should live. Some intranets offer content personalization, so your team can also prioritize information from most to least important by accessing personalized news feeds with info specific to each team member.
For company-wide news and updates, provide a central tool where employees can find the latest information instead of spreading out information across multiple channels. Hours spent searching for material take time away from other tasks and increase team members’ frustrations. These methods can ensure that the most urgent information is shared with the correct departments, while buffering others from details that might not be relevant.
Communication is an individual and organizational skill, and just like any skill, it takes practice to improve. Putting systems in place will only work if people use them, and building your own communication practice is the first step.
So, lead by example. Start by drafting a simple weekly recap to share a streamlined version of your team’s latest news and information with other teams. It might not seem like much at first, but it’s these first steps that help encourage others and lead your team, your department, and your organization to a better place.