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Communication Problems in Organizations

We have a communication problem. How many times have you heard that as an explanation
for project failures, disgruntled employees, or a lack of teamwork in organizations? Aside from
the dramatic cases, such as a nurse not telling a doctor that he is about to operate on the wrong
leg or a co-pilot not telling the pilot that another plane is on the same landing approach, we
rarely know what is meant by communication problem. Several colleagues and I decided to
find out. Leslie Stambaugh, Jim Stilwell, and I asked 15 organization leaders about the
communication challenges they face in their organizations. An analysis of their responses
identified nine major categories:
1. Not All Employees Being Kept Informed
The assumption is that the usual modes of communication will send important information to
everyone who needs to know and that everyone will receive this information. However, in many
organizations, the information doesnt reach people who are not using those methods of
communication on a regular basis (e.g., email that isnt read by front-line workers).
2. Employees Not Receiving Consistent Messages from Management
Different supervisors are sending different, sometimes conflicting, messages about priorities.
This causes confusion and distrust among employees.
3. Employees Not Receiving Timely Messages
Information is not getting to employees when and where they need it. Without vital information
at the right time and in the right place, the decision-making process slows and projects are not
completed on time or in the best way.
4. The Right Information is Not Being Sent to the Right People
Critical information (e.g., market data) is not being shared among key stakeholders. Top
management is not engaging employees who have most of the customer contact in the important
decisions of the organization. Employees are not getting important information to management.
5. Expectations are Not Clear
Top leaders do not discuss expectations with mid-level managers. Therefore, they do not have
the same expectations nor do they agree on how to reach strategic goals. Because of this,
employees do not have clear goals and benchmarks to guide their progress.
6. Plan for the Future is Not Known
Leaders do not discuss their vision for the future of the organization with employees. There is no
sense of a shared direction toward which everyone is striving. This does not inspire employees to
do their best work.
7. Functional Areas Not Collaborating
Departments/units do not share the information that could help all departments/units achieve
common goals. They are competitive rather than collaborative. This limits the capability of the
organization as a whole.
8. Employees Not Open with Each Other
Employees do not share information with each other. They do not trust each other. This
compromises the productivity of teams, departments/units, and the organization.
9. Communication Hampered by Distance between Units
Departments/units that are in different locations do not communicate as much and as often as
those in close proximity. The distance makes face-to-face meetings harder to arrange and
collaboration takes more time.

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Even in this age of email, cell phones, text messaging, and Web conferencing, critical
communication among leaders, between management and employees, and between
departments/units, still does not happen as much and as often as needed.

The Silent Killer of Big Companies (HBR)

A leading mobile-phone maker falls out of step with its market and struggles to catch up.
An energy-trading company rises high and then suddenly implodes.
A luxury cruise ship takes a wrong turn and the parent cruise-line company finds itself on
troubled waters.
A mighty oil company presides over an environmental disaster one that spills over to become
a PR disaster as well.
The board of an airline hires a CEO and then cancels his contract after just three years.
Five big companies. Five big problems. One of these companies is a high-tech manufacturer, two
of them are in the energy sector, and two of them are in the consumer transport business.
Otherwise, they have almost nothing in common. The problems that each company has faced
vary widely, too.
Or so it might seem. In fact, each of these cases of organizational failure involves right at the
crux of the matter a grievous lapse in communication. Lets look further at these five
companies and their problems.
Nokia: For more than a decade, Nokia was the worlds largest mobile-phone manufacturer. But
when the smartphone became the next big thing within the mobility market, the company lost its
competitive edge. According to an in-depth account of why Nokia has struggle[d] to turn its
good ideas into products, much of the problem stems from habits of communication that favor
unfocused discussions about strategy over clear plans to bring new phone models to market.
Enron: A scholarly investigation into the problems that led to Enrons collapse pinpointed
several communication-based leader responsibilities that senior managers failed to meet
responsibilities such as communicating appropriate values and maintaining openness to signs
of problems.
Star Princess Cruise Lines: In April 2012, passengers on the cruise ship Star Princess told
members of the ships crew that they had spotted a fishing boat that showed signs of being in
distress. Yet the ship didnt stop to provide aid, and two people on the fishing boat later died of
dehydration. Later, the cruise-line company issued a statement that cited a breakdown in
communication in relaying the passengers concern.
British Petroleum: The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, in April 2010,
resulted in a massive crisis for BP and its partners. Among the key factors that contributed to the
disaster were poor communications and a failure to share important information, according
to a report on the White House commission that studied the incident.
Thai Airways: When Piyasvasti Amranand lost his job as CEO of Thai Air, in May 2012, the
reason for his dismissal was somewhat elusive. After all, he had held the post for a mere three
years, and the companys board had recently given him a positive annual review. According
to one media report, however, the chairman of the airline said that communication problems
between Piyasvasti and the board were hampering the companys effort to meet [its] profit
We didnt select these examples entirely at random. But neither did we work very hard to find
them. Even a cursory survey of high-profile organizational failures will turn up numerous stories
that fit the same pattern. Thumb through the business pages of your daily newspaper. Or browse

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the virtual pages of a business news Web site. Very often, if you didnt know better, it would be
easy to conclude that you were reading case notes from the field of communication studies.
Every leader keenly understands the consequences of taking a lax approach to financial
management. And most leaders today recognize how dangerous it can be to take a lax approach
to people management. But how many leaders appreciate the risks that come with taking a lax
approach to communication management with failing to manage the way that ideas and
information flows within their organization?
Those leaders who do effectively manage the flow of information within their company tend to
share a certain outlook and a certain set of practices. They adopt communication methods that
enable them to get closer to employees. They put in place communication systems that promote
dialogue, as opposed to monologue. Theyengage employees by allowing them to become active
participants in the communication process. They rigorously pursue an agenda that aligns their
communication efforts with organizational strategy.
They put a premium on ensuring that people in their organization talk with each other, and not
just to each other.
Organizational Problems in the Workplace
As organizations continue to diversify, the opportunities for workplace problems intensify. Small
business owners and managers typically face one or more of three potential levels of conflict -employee, team or organization-wide issues. Often the underlying causes of these problems are
the lack of open, flowing communications or using the wrong organizational structure. Many
businesses compound problems by avoiding communicating a clear chain of command path.
Employee Issues
Individual employee problems can be personality conflicts, supervisor issues, personal trauma, or
company structure oriented. Management must learn the cause of the problem and who or what
keeps "fueling the fire." If there is no clear trigger, the answer could fall back to insufficient or
confusing communications. For example, an employee in a decentralized organization may feel
they must answer to multiple supervisors if the chain of command is not communicated clearly.
Team Problems
To be high performing, teams must be dedicated to working toward an agreed goal. Should they
experience personal disconnect with other team members, the team can become non-functional.
These issues often stem from organizational or management communication breakdowns that
confuse team and personal common goals. Team leaders must offer constant feedback and foster
cohesiveness. When facing team issues, managers must diagnose the problem and take
immediate corrective action to avoid more serious performance breakdowns.
Organization-wide Problems
Simple employee or team issues can quickly expand to your total organization if you don't take
immediate corrective action. You must avoid this situation at all costs, as it often results in your
staff forming two groups, both at odds with each other. Should all your avoidance actions fail, be
ready to take much more dramatic corrective measures. You must prevent these problems from

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negatively changing the corporate culture you have carefully cultivated to make your company
and workplace a high performing entity.
Organizational Problem Solving Steps
Many roads can lead to organizational problems at the workplace. Successfully solving these
issues, however, usually follows the same plan. First, manage and resolve the current problem
right away. For example, two or three employees may have interpersonal conflicts. If you are not
part of the problem, you must become the solution. Second, learn the problem's root causes.
Address and correct these issues to avoid a repetition of the problem. This is simple to state, but
often more difficult to accomplish. Yet, it is imperative you take these two steps to maintain a
high-performing staff.

Managing Multicultural Teams

Multicultural teams offer a number of advantages to international firms, including deep
knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive customer service, and 24-hour work
rotations. But those advantages may be outweighed by problems stemming from cultural
differences, which can seriously impair the effectiveness of a team or even bring it to a
stalemate. How can managers best cope with culture-based challenges?
The authors conducted in-depth interviews with managers and members of multicultural teams
from all over the world. Drawing on their extensive research on dispute resolution and teamwork
and those interviews, they identify four problem categories that can create barriers to a teams
success: direct versus indirect communication, trouble with accents and fluency, differing
attitudes toward hierarchy and authority, and conflicting norms for decision making. If a
manageror a team membercan pinpoint the root cause of the problem, he or she is likelier to
select an appropriate strategy for solving it.
The most successful teams and managers, the authors found, dealt with multicultural challenges
in one of four ways: adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them),
structural intervention (changing the shape or makeup of the team), managerial intervention
(setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and exit (removing a team member
when other options have failed). Which strategy is best depends on the particular circumstances
and each has potential complications. In general, though, managers who intervene early and
set norms; teams and managers who try to engage everyone on the team; and teams that can see
challenges as stemming from culture, not personality, succeed in solving culture-based problems
with good humor and creativity. They are the likeliest to harvest the benefits inherent in
multicultural teams.

Marria Hassan