signs your team isn’t communicating well

When teams communicate well, you usually know it: Work flows smoothly, people are in sync, everyone’s clear on priorities, and bad surprises are rare. But when a team isn’t communicating effectively, those things tend to fly out the window. Yet surprisingly, poorly communicating teams don’t always recognize that that’s the source of the problem.< Here are four signs that your team isn’t communicating effectively – and that you need to revisit the way you work together. 1. Work is coming back to you differently than what you’d envisioned. When this is happening, two culprits are likely: First, you’re probably not doing enough work on the front-end to ensure that you and the person you’re delegating to are on the same page – which usually means spending more time talking through the details and what a successful outcome will look like. (For instance, rather than just saying, “The web page should look inviting and modern,” actually looking together at sites that have the feel you’re going for is more likely to ensure you’re both envisioning the same thing.) Second, with longer-term projects, you should be checking in along the way in order to get a feel for how the work is progressing and avoid any gaps in what you’re envisioning and what’s actually happening.

2. Deadlines are being missed. If deadlines are being missed, then either your staff didn’t understand the deadline and its importance in the first place, or they don’t believe you take deadlines seriously. The latter will happen if you don’t take deadlines seriously yourself, and/or if there aren’t consequences for missing deadlines. (Even a simple “what happened?” conversation with you can communicate that deadlines need to be taken seriously.)

3. You don’t trust that work is being carried out correctly. If you don’t trust your team to do their work well, there’s a problem. It might be that you’re not delegating well to begin with (see #1 above), or that you’re not checking in enough to feel confident about how work is progressing (or to course-correct early on if it’s needed), or it might be that there’s a performance issue on your team that you need to address – but generally a lack of trust in your team’s work is a serious flag that something isn’t working and you, as the team’s manager, need to make a change.

4. If you asked your team members what the most important things for them to accomplish this month/quarter/year, their answers wouldn’t match yours. Little is more important for employees to understand than what success in their roles would look like, but it’s incredibly common for managers to neglect to do the work of spelling that out. As a result, employees often have one idea about what’s most important for them to achieve (and thus what they should prioritize and spend time on) while their managers believe something else entirely.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. EAA*

    I have a simple mantra that I’ve conveyed to my family. Say what you mean, mean what you say. This started after my husband was out of town with his boss. They were almost home (we lived around the corner from each other) and boss asked husband if he was hungry. Husband wasn’t sure what the boss wanted and what he should say as they were only a few miles from home. Turns out boss was hungry and wanted to stop at the Denny’s a mile from home to get something to eat.

    1. Jamie*

      Reminds of the easiest way to remember the foundation of ISO.

      Say what you do.
      Do what you say.
      Prove that you did what you said you would do.

        1. Jamie*

          Ha! If I had the talent I would spend the rest of the day re-writing every procedure in Suess.

          Calibration is required.
          Even when you are tired.
          Or stuck in the mire…

          If not with NIST traceability calibration is of no utility!

          Yeah, there is a reason I don’t write children’s books for a living. Most boring bedtime stories ever!

          Seriously though I would say 90% of my work issues end up being communication related. I think being willing and able to communicate effectively and timely (especially important) is rarer than it should be.

          I’m not talking about writing a thesis – just being able to send a cogent email that answers all the questions from the email to which they are responding. And giving relevant data so it’s not a game of 20 questions.

          “A customer sent me a file in a format I don’t recognize (insert file extension or forward me the file) can you help me open it?”

          “I have a broken file.”

          You’d be surprised how many people don’t seem capable of scenario A.

          1. James M*

            I sometimes imagine deviations from published standards to follow the pattern of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

    2. KerryOwl*

      I apologize for the possible derail, but I’m not sure I understand the moral of the story. Are you saying the boss should have said “I would like to stop at Denny’s if you are hungry, are you hungry?” And your husband would have said no because he’d prefer to go straight home? But he said “yes I’m hungry” because he was hungry and then had to go to Denny’s when really he would have preferred to go home and eat there? I’m making this all up but I feel like we only got half of the anecdote!

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        I think the point is that the boss himself was hungry, and asking someone else if he’s hungry because you want dinner is a little like my grandmother saying “I’m freezing – why don’t you put on a sweater?”

      2. Jamie*

        I read it as they were almost home so it was hard to read why he was just talking about being hungry.

        100 miles into a 200 mile trip I’m hungry generally means let’s stop somewhere. But almost home, I’d have assumed he was just musing about being hungry and would eat when he got home.

        That’s how I read it anyway. I mean if he had said he was sleepy when they were almost home would he have expected the other guy to infer he wanted to hit a hotel?

      3. Vicki*

        The boss was hungry. Instead of saying “I’m hungry. I’d like to stop at Denny’s. ” he instead asked a question “Are you hungry?” in the hopes that the husband would say “sure”.

        This is a well-known miscommunication pattern. One person asks a question (instead of making an “I” statement) hoping that the other person will a) read their mind and b) make the decision that the first person wants to have made.

        1. EAA*

          Yes, exactly. I don’t remember exactly how it all played out but eventually my husband got the boss to say what he wanted. And they went to eat.

    1. money lady*

      or mine (sighs)
      The worst part is that it comes from the top down. The top knows there is an issue but says they don’t know how to fix it. So, we do nothing. Great way to get work done. not.

      1. Adam*

        I know the feeling. Our communication problems stem from the top as well, so we’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it. Time to abandon the sinking ship!

    2. Anon for this*

      My manager actually insists that we not talk to anyone, either inside or outside. Our instructions consist of “Don’t talk to this person because…” and “Be careful what you say to this person because…” and “Don’t tell anyone I told you this because…”

      It’s exactly as efficient and morale-boosting as it sounds.

        1. Anon for this*

          I wish! That would make it all seem very purposeful and exciting! But sadly, no. We’re just boring office drones unfortunately. :)

      1. Laura2*

        I had a manager who did this in an effort to protect her turf and because she knew that if other people knew what she was having us do they’d go ballistic.

  2. Maddy*

    I’m especially drawn to the last one on this list — I often find that my big picture/long-term goals for my staff don’t even register a blip on their radar because they’re so focused on their day-to-day tasks of just keeping the office moving. That’s definitely important, but getting them to understand that there are larger goals to be working towards is an ongoing struggle.

      1. Maddy*

        I have weekly 30-minute one-on-ones and I’m probably not using that time as effectively as possible (need to implement the suggestions you posted last week!). While I do feel like I’ve address the big goals quite frequently, my staff have had so much manager turnover in the last few years that they’ve not seen any long-term goals come to fruition, so they’re understandably a bit jaded.

        I think I need to do a better job illustrating what the benefit of these projects will be, and show my team that I’m not just dreaming up new work for them, but trying to better serve our clients and eventually make their lives easier. That might help with the motivation issue.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, I’d also say they need the following: goal, plan for how they will reach that goal, milestones along the way. Then you can hold them to that plan, and you have milestones to check in on (monthly, quarterly, whatever). If you’re feeling like you need to persuade and motivate them to do this, something is getting lost in the translation; they should see it as a piece of their job that they’re accountable for.

        2. Sidney*

          Your comment that frequent turnover led to big goals never getting accomplished is something I’ve seen a lot at my new-ish (8 months so far) job.

          The person before me was in the position less than a year and left a major project half-done. Just enough to look like success on paper, not enough to actually get results. I get to work out a long-term plan to make the project work.

          At the same time, I got involved with introducing a new database to all the other departments. The people I was training were about 60% sure that the project would get axed, because that was the history of the database. Lots of talk, not a lot of implementation.

      2. Jamie*

        This is the best advice. My boss and I try to sit down once every couple of weeks for 15 minutes for this very reason.

        I have a running agenda of long term items I work on and we just touch base and I fill him in on progress.

        I certainly wouldn’t wait for one of those meetings to run something by him or tell him I needed X, nor would he if he had a question about something – but it’s just a chance to make sure we’re keeping the long term stuff on the radar. Because yeah, it can totally get lost when fighting fires – on both sides.

        But I keep a simple running list of item, due date (if applicable) and a status field as it helps me to make sure it’s all covered.

        And to me, that’s the best purpose of a 1 on 1. If they are being used where either side is saving up all their issues that’s a problem if the wait gets in the way of meeting deadlines.

  3. JM*

    Understanding other cultures is very important too especially in communicating with globally distributed teams. A “NO” is considered rude in several cultures and is mostly hidden when talking /emailing. With years, you learn to get the implied message, but it is a mess at the beginning.

  4. Lizabeth*

    In the middle of reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (the president of Pixar and Disney Animation) Fascinating read!!! A lot of light bulbs went off in Chapters 5 & 6 because he does talk about communications etc, what they go through to get a movie finished and what they had to change to make the process flow better. Highly recommend! Bonus: reading another person’s impressions of Steve Jobs.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      I saw the book advertise on the subway it caught my eye and I was thinking about ordering it, thanks for the recommendation I’ll give it a read.

  5. AndersonDarling*

    I worked somewhere with inefficient meetings. Once, my boss asked if I had finished something that was talked about in a meeting and I was shocked. 1. the job was never assigned to me in the meeting and 2. he never did what he said he was going to do in the meetings so I never even considered that any work should be done. Meetings were just places with big talk and the same meeting would happen every month with nothing getting done.

    1. Cath in Canada*

      I’ve had this happen via email.

      A few days after the message was sent, the sender mentioned to someone else that he was waiting for me to do something, and that someone else passed the message on to me. I pored over the message again and again and could still just barely figure out where the request for me to do something was hidden. It just looked like a status update on his part of the task.

      It reminded me of the scene on The Big Bang Theory where Leonard is translating Sheldon’s phone call for Penny: “He’s calling to ask you a favor. You might be confused because he didn’t use the words Penny, Sheldon, please, or favor”.

  6. Jessica*

    Wish I could just send this article to my supervisor, particularly #1. “This web page should look inviting and modern” is EXACTLY the kind of thing he would say, and if you press for details he just gets annoyed, like you’re trying to get him to do your work for you. And then inevitably, whatever the result, it’s “not what I was envisioning.” Which means all of us have to check in with drafts of everything constantly so we don’t spend too long on something that’s going to get criticized and rejected anyway.

    1. Cautionary tail*

      I was exactly there. And it was for an external facing website.

      I brought out screenshots of other web sites that I liked and I documented and explained why I liked them and the potential business benefits to having ours work in a similar fashion.

      After all this, boss ignored everything and had a clone made of an existing ten year-old website, which was an upgrade from the then current twenty year-old website.

      Although I was gung-ho at the beginning. once I saw where this was starting to go I quietly recused myself from the project.

      1. Cautionary tail*

        To stay more connected to the topic I should point out that boss’s initial communication was to have it more inviting and modern.


    2. Christina*

      Do you work for my manager? Because ugh. I’ve gotten “make it look like people want to work here” which was a fun description to try to interpret.

  7. LQ*

    Deadlines. It can also be that if managers are regularly not getting items to staff by a time frame (which might be from a perfectly reasonable reason) that it delays it. If managers do this often they send a message to staff that deadlines aren’t important.

    Yes that manager might have a thing that comes up that is higher importance, but then they need to either extend the deadline, or give additional support to the person doing the task. Giving someone work later than they said they would and then expecting the turn around to not change is sending a very clear message that deadlines don’t matter.

  8. Sarah*

    Super interesting article! I work in a department that serves a bunch of other departments in a matrix environment. We are constantly having to follow up with people to get more information about what they are asking of us. A lot of people just don’t want to take the time to think through what they want the end result to look like (or they just don’t know, so they keep it super broad). I’d love more articles about communication, especially about cross-department communication. It can be tricky thing and is more complicated than a manager-direct report relationship because you are often on the same level as the other person and you have different managers and expectations about how to work together.

    1. money lady*

      This a million times! Our department communicates well. It is the communication between departments (specifically department heads) that is lacking. We are not cohesive, do not operate as a team and everything feels clunky.

  9. Brandon R Allen*

    I see all 4 of those communication breakdowns happening in the small businesses that I work with.

    A lot of small business leaders and managers don’t trust their team to handle things in their business and they don’t realize they are a big part of the problem.

  10. Rebecca*

    One of the biggest issues we have where I work is email drive by’s. It seems like people just want to see that message “marked as read” and off their desk, but they don’t really communicate what they need.

    Case in point – sending a long message, with a ton of back and forth messages, to someone else, and simply stating “see below” or “see below and advise”.

    It’s so easy to miss something, especially if there are 10 pages of single spaced back and forth info below.

    When I need to loop in additional people, I always list the individual names and what I need them to address. That way, there’s no question about who needs to address which issue.

    1. EAA*

      Not only could some item be missed completely you can end up with the new person not really sure what they are supposed to do.

    2. AVP*

      Oof. My pet peeve with the emails is when people send a list of questions, and then one person copy/pastes the questions and responds in bold, and then another person copy/pastes that exchange and adds in their responses in blue, and then person #1 responds again in regular type, and then person #4 c/p’s the whole thing and responds in red, but maybe he’s doing it the same time as person #3 so now there are multiple versions flying around…does ANYONE know what’s really being communicated here? No.

      1. Sharon*

        Yep. First clue that they all need to stop typing and grab a meeting room (or conference call).

    3. Sidney*

      My top boss will sometimes forward me emails like this. Oftentimes, it works great because she just needs to see “grants” mentioned and knows I can handle it. Other times, I don’t have any context or history and need to go back to her to figure out if I’m supposed to do anything.

  11. Vicki*

    Many of the stories in this thread read like variations on a particular communication style mismatch.

    There’s a theory of communication styles that some people have an “Informing” style and others a “Directing” style. When the two collide, a lot of miscommunication happens. (Also, people with a Directing style may think Informers are passive-aggressive; people with an Informing style may think Directors are pushy.)


    At home:
    Informing: We’re out of milk.
    Directing: When you’re at the store, get milk.

    At work:
    Informing: Bob likes to read all of the status reports before the staff meeting.
    Directing: Send your status reports to Bob before noon tomorrow.

    1. Windchime*

      Ahhhh! I didn’t know there was a name for these different styles of communication. I find “informing” communication to be just that….someone is saying something to inform me. I don’t see any request in there at all. I’d be happy to do something, if only you (general you) would tell me what it is that you want!

      My boss used to do this. He would spend out 1:1 talking and I would agree with everything he said, but I would still leave confused about what he actually wanted me to do (if anything). I finally told him that, and he was happy to actually outline the work he wanted for me. It was just a mismatch of communication styles.

    2. Sidney*

      But, but… I’m not pushy! I just like making lists. Lists of things that I can check of as “clearly someone else’s/my responsibility as noted on page 5.”

    3. Cassie*

      My mom is definitely an informer, and my dad (poor dad) is not very good at picking up the hidden requests which just gets my mom frustrated and mad that he hasn’t done what she’s “asked” him to do and she’s “asked” him three times. When clearly (to him at least), she hasn’t asked him to do anything at all!

  12. Not So NewReader*

    This is so sad. I have never worked in a place where there were periodic goals set, that I was told about. A convo looked like this:
    “Just to let you know, we are going to do A, B and C in the near future.
    Okay, that is all, you can leave now.”

    How this played out is A got canceled, B turned into a three year project and C got shelved because B took so long.
    Since this is how things went, the meetings were perceived as not very important.

    /vent. sigh.

  13. Cassie*

    My HR friend and I were discussing whether ESL classes offered by the university (for students) would be helpful for a coworker – I don’t think so because the type of communication we need in the workplace is slightly different from what students working toward a degree need. Not that there isn’t overlap, but I don’t think the problem with the coworker’s communication skills is that English is his second language. English is a second language for a large number of faculty / students and even staff in our dept. Communication in our dept can be pretty bad, even among people who are native English speakers!

    Grammar / pronunciation is important (don’t get me wrong) but the biggest problem is that requester don’t quite know what they want or can’t verbalize it so the other person is stuck trying to guess what is it that the requester wants.

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