Companies must develop a working environment that is conducive to open, trusting, caring relationships between people—an environment that welcomes new ideas and encourages constructive feedback; one in which management actively serves as a catalyst for nurturing and then disseminating new ideas. One of the functions of management is to recognize communication barriers so that the organization can avoid them. Discussed below are some of the most significant communication barriers to avoid.
Communication barrier: Rigid adherence to organizational charts. Organization charts in a company neither define relationships as they actually exist nor direct the lines of communication. If the organization doesn’t reside in the minds and hearts of the people, it doesn’t exist. No chart can fix that. An organization’s function is simple: to provide a framework, a format, a context in which people can effectively use resources to accomplish their goals. The problem is that organizational charts imply that communication should only flow vertically. The fact is communication must flow across organizational and functional units as well.
Communication barrier: Management isolation. Management should keep in mind that creating lavish executive offices, having administrative assistants construct what amounts to barbed-wire enclosures around those executive offices, establishing perquisites—the corner office, executive parking spaces, separate executive floors, private washrooms and dining rooms, limos, even flying first class when others sit in coach—loudly proclaim who is boss. These “perks” increase personal distance and ensure that people feel that their leaders are unapproachable.
Communication barrier: The development of caste systems. The caste system creates artificial barriers that inhibit communication. For example, does your organization encourage clear language or is jargon the norm? Are there opportunities for people at different levels and in different functional groups to spend time with one another, or is there socializing only along status lines?
Communication barrier: The existence of physical barriers. Distance poses another kind of problem in the workplace. People communicate most with those physically closest to them. Thomas Allen of MIT notes that “beyond a distance of 25 or 30 yards, personal interaction drops off markedly. That is why it is important for management to try to bring together as much as possible those who work together.”
Communication barrier: The ambiance surrounding meetings. The process of setting up a meeting and the nonverbal cues during a meeting often communicate as much as the content of the meeting itself. For example, how often are meetings held? Are people early or late for meetings? Is the boss late? What’s the layout of the room? Who gets invited? What’s on the agenda? How is the agenda prepared? How long does the average meeting last? How much time is allotted to each subject? Is the tone of the meeting formal or informal? How much dialogue is there?
Communication barrier: Consistency of words and actions. Are the actions of your organization consistent with its policies? Does management say they care about innovation, but promote those who don’t rock the boat? Do they say that they reward excellence, but give across-the-board raises? Do they say they reward creativity, but have a long-drawn-out approval process that frustrates anyone with a new idea?
Communication barrier: Political warfare. Some people hoard information for personal gain. They believe they increase their power when others are in the dark. Organizations must combat the idea that playing politics with information will bring personal gain. Organizations marked by politics, turf battles, and staff infighting lack adequate communication.
Communication barrier: Poor listening habits. When report cards are given out for how well we listen, very few of us would receive passing grades. Barriers to listening include assuming a subject is uninteresting and tuning out, focusing on the delivery rather than the content, reacting too quickly before the message is completed, picking up on emotional words and not hearing the rest of the message, listening only for facts rather than trying to absorb ideas, allowing yourself to be distracted, and avoiding listening to subjects that you don’t understand. Everyone must learn to overcome these barriers.
The bottom line is that there are four elements required to make communication thrive. First, every organization requires accessible, affordable, easy-to-use technology. Second, an open, honest work environment should be embraced. Third, people should be encouraged to break down the communication barriers that exist. Last, great leaders must communicate the guiding principles, beliefs, and values of the organization—this will rally everyone to a common cause. For just as the stars were used to navigate ships in the night, these guiding principles dictate what is important, how decisions are made, how people are rewarded, who gets promoted, what kind of person joins the organization, and how people communicate with one another.