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Poor Communication is a Symptom

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U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team head coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks with Kevin Durant, left, Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler, behind, Anthony Davis, and others during a practice, Sunday, July 15, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

By Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom |

It is common for people in organizations to claim that bad communication is a cause of their problems. However, this is often not the case at all. Bad communication is not a cause. It is a symptom. It signals problems that are deeper and only manifesting themselves by preventing good communication from occurring. Let’s explore what some of those underlying issues are.

Organizational structure and culture go hand in hand. When an organization is poorly structured, organizational culture suffers. When organizational culture goes bad, so does communication. Bad organizational structures are likely to be poorly integrated and coordinated. People often work in silos without proper collaboration and teamwork. Workflows are poorly defined and job descriptions are often too rigid. People tend to be territorial and negatively competitive with each other. This creates bad communication. Since people are not aware of the overall value chain and only focus on their own jobs, they do not see it as necessary to communicate with others to perform their daily tasks. Bad organizational structures are typically top heavy and overly centralized. They are hierarchical and communication flow is often top-down if it occurs at all. It is one way rather than two way.

Leadership is another factor impacting organizational communication. Overly directive and task-oriented leaders tend to not focus on the importance of good communication. They tend to only focus on goals and objectives. The problem with their management by objectives approach is that they fail to focus on the processes. For the processes to work, there must be some teamwork and collaboration. These require good communication. However, if it is not fostered and modeled by the leader, it is not likely to occur. Task oriented leaders do not focus on people. They tend to have a need for control, and this control often includes attempts to control all communication as well. People tend to feel ignored, and they do not see themselves as being valued and appreciated. They tend to be poorly motivated and passive. Their lack of engagement limits their desire to communicate positively. The irony of these task-oriented leaders is that they do not communicate their expectations clearly. Since their focus is not on people, they also do not pay attention to whether they are being understood. When their communication is top-down and one sided, there is no feedback loop. It is incorrectly assumed by the leader that all communications sent or attempted are received and understood.

Sometimes communication is interrupted by noise. This can be either literal noise or “noise” caused by some indirect environmental factors such as stress, overwork, perceived chaos, and turnover. Sometimes there is technical noise in the form of poor Internet or mobile phone connection. When there is too much noise, intended communication does not go through and the message sent by the sender is not received by the receiver. Dysfunctional organizations have a lot of noise that makes communication nearly impossible. Regardless of all the different communication channels, some better than others, good communication does not occur. Sometimes it is the number and nature of these different channels that make it impossible. Wrong channels are used for communication attempts. For example, email is used when face to face discussion would be better. Sometimes messaging applications and video conferencing platforms make communication worse rather than better.

Communication is in the heart of all human interactions. It is the key to all organizational interactions. People need to communicate in order to work together. Without it, optimal performance is impossible. Poor communication is not fixed by addressing the communication itself. It is fixed by correcting the underlying issues of organizational structure, culture, and leadership.

Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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