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How to Manage Communication Failures in the Workplace

Posted by Chris Fields

communication failures

Ever take a job and later realize that your boss is a lousy communicator?

Or, have you ever had an employee come to your office and complain about the lack of communication they are experiencing with their supervisor or manager?

I bet you answered yes to at least one of those questions. And I can tell you from personal experience and from talking with friends and clients that some bosses are just not good at communicating. Currently, I know of two people who are dealing with this very problem. Both recently accepted new positions in Human Resources, and now that the orientation and onboarding process is over they can clearly see that their bosses are bad communicators. They’ve provided no direction, no structure, and they don’t even check in with them at the end of the day or the end of the week – they are just not available.

So how do you manage a bad communicator? What are the dos and don’ts? Well, I have some advice for you.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do.

  1. Don’t overact. Sometimes, bad reactions are far more damaging than the lack of communication to begin with, so be careful to not let yourself  get too frustrated and allow that frustration to cloud your judgment or professionalism.
  2. Don’t quit your job – at least not right away. There a few things you can try before throwing in the towel.
  3. Don’t go on a workplace rant, complaining to co-workers or anyone who will listen about your boss. You never know who’s connected, and let’s be honest – people talk.
  4. Don’t get discouraged and come to work only to play games online and chat with your friends. Some people just mail it in – but that’s not the way to go.
  5. Don’t get on social media and complain, either. This is an in-house, internal situation, and you want to keep it that way.

Here’s what you should do.

  1. Take time to reach out to others and learn other aspects of the business. Form relationships with your co-workers and other department leaders. Ask about their projects and get a sense of how things work holistically. Take a few days to do some fact-finding and data collection. Find out what you can about the culture and other management styles.
  2. Request a meeting with your manager. Don’t be pushy or nasty (remember this is a no-frustration zone). When you meet with him or her, ask about the projects you’re working on, what the expectations are, and ask directly for the kind of support you are looking for.
  3. Send a follow-up email after the meeting to clarify what you discussed, and outline your understanding of the plan of action going forward.
  4. If they are not available for a meeting, you should take it to HR. Request a meeting with HR to discuss the issue and go over possible solutions. Be sure to make it clear that you are not looking to leave, you just need some clarification on what is expected of you. HR may be able to shed some light on the situation, clarify the chain of command, and offer suggestions to resolve the problem.
  5. If all else fails, you may need to look for a new job, but give it a chance before going back to your job search.

But wait, we’re not done. Let’s discuss what to do if you’re the HR person and an employee comes to you complaining about a manager’s lack of communication.

  1. Don’t bad-mouth the manager. Even if you know that the manager in question is problematic, has issues, or even is about to be fired, resist the urge to talk negatively about him or her.
  2. Don’t make promises. As an HR professional, you are part counselor, so listen to the employee and try to help alleviate their frustration. But, be careful to not make any promises you can’t keep, such as a transfer or promotion.
  3. Ask the employee, specifically, what he or she would like to see happen going forward. Again, you need to ask them to be specific. Some employees are reasonable, and some are not. You want to find out what their expectations are.
  4. After talking with the employee, talk to your fellow HR colleagues to get their insights before taking action.
  5. Be courageous. Let’s say you determine that the employee’s complaint is without merit. You have to be brave enough to explain to the person that the communication they’re receiving is in alignment with that of other managers in the company. Maybe the employee is setting unrealistic communication goals (or is a little needy).
  6. Communicate with the manager. This could all be a misunderstanding. Maybe the manager has some outside issues that are affecting him or her temporarily. Maybe the manager is disengaged and ready to move on to another job. Or maybe he or she could use some additional training or a refresher course on management communication. Whatever the case, you, as the HR pro, may need to have a little conversation with them to clear the air and set the tone. Managers need to know that a lack of communication can kill employee engagement, morale, productivity, and retention. It simply costs too much to be an ineffective communicator.

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About Chris Fields

Author

Chris Fields is an HR professional and expert resume writer with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant. He is the curator of two websites: CostofWork.com and ResumeCrusade.com, and contributes HR-focused content to many others, including PerformanceICreate.com, eSkill.com and SmartRecruiters.com.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Julie Wellis March, 07, 2014

    The lack of or poor communication is the source of all the problems that can appear in the workplace – communication failures affect office morale and productivity. But in reality disputes between employees are rather common and probably even inevitable, they can’t be completely eliminated, but being approached from the right angle they subside. The most important principle you should keep to while handling communication failures is not to give way to emotions, but rationally assess all the facts.

  • Josh March, 10, 2014

    I agree that being overemotional about communication problems is not a good way of handling a situation, but how do get through to a manager who doesn’t want to listen and keeps ignoring you? Such situations really put me off! Of course I don’t want to make enemies at the workplace and don’t want to quit my job, but if the situation becomes more and more unbearable what else can I do?

  • Natalie Pachinskie March, 11, 2014

    Josh, there’s one simple fact that can’t be denied – when people are deeply upset about something, they need to get their story out. Try to approach your manger and tell that you are concerned about your communication. Of course, speaking your mind can increase the level of conflict, but must go through this phase to find the solution. At least I see no better way.

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