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Communication problems.
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The five types of communication problems that destroy company morale

Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Engineering manager, Automattic

There’s a saying in software that all bugs are eventually user interface bugs, because someone has to see them to report them. In organizations, it often seems like all problems are eventually communication problems, because communication is the way we interface with each other—and the way most problems surface.

There are a lot of reasons why communication within a company can break down. Here are some of the most common.

Communication problem #1: Lack of depth

Lack of depth shows up most when communicating strategy: Someone will lay out the way forward, but will not be able to outline what is actually changing and will stall on concrete questions, creating confusion and frustration as people are unable to connect the changes to their day-to-day responsibilities.

Example 1: Running a workshop without a clear goal and outcome. People will not understand what they are doing and feel like their time was wasted.

Example 2: Outlining plans for a product improvement but glossing over the underlying work that will be needed to support it—and the implications for support staff.

Good strategy requires depth, which means having an understanding of key problems and an ability to explain how the strategy addresses them. When that depth is absent, credibility is lost and the person announcing the strategy often ends up being ignored.

Communication problem #2: Conflicting context

Conflicting context shows up when people communicate superficially, without considering the context held by the other party.

Example 1: Team A requires support from Team B on its top-priority project. But Team B considers this project low priority and drops it in favor of something else, leading to frustration from Team A.

Example 2: Person A and Person B have been given overlapping mandates. Both are trying to deliver, but their priorities are in conflict.

Last year, a team where I work experienced a cascading failure, and a colleague and I spent five hours with them doing a detailed retrospective over the full timeline of the project. We found that the communication disconnect happened months before the eventual failure; at some point the context of this team and the other people they were working with wildly diverged, and while work and communication continued, they were not talking about the same thing anymore.

Communication problem #3: Missing empathy

Empathy shortages are arguably a chronic condition at many companies, but they’re particularly problematic when you’re communicating important organizational change.

Example 1: External factors to the business cause leadership to review the roadmap and make the difficult decision to end a project and reallocate people to higher-priority projects. When communicating this, the focus is on the business need, with no acknowledgement of the investment people have personally in a project they’ve been working on for a long time, creating anxiety and resentment.

Example 2: An aggressive hiring goal makes a reorganization necessary to support the increased size of the team. This means that some teams will initially be smaller. With some leaders feeling like they are having responsibility taken from them, and some individual contributors surprised by a shift to a new manager, everyone panics.

An organizational change is usually something that leadership has spent a lot of time understanding and working through, with the broad insight to see why it’s necessary. By the time the plan gets communicated more widely, senior leaders have worked through their own personal feelings about it (if they had any), perhaps forgetting that for many people now hearing about the plan, this is just the beginning and they will have their own emotions and questions to work through.

There’s often a similar dynamic in feedback conversations, when the person giving the feedback is caught up in their own emotions about it and forgets about the feelings of the person receiving the feedback. When communicating anything that people have the potential to find difficult, it’s crucial to have empathy and create space for people to process.

Communication problem #4: Communication that triggers anxiety

Sometimes it feels like we tell someone something relatively minor and straightforward … and then watch in confusion as they overreact wildly. This is communication that triggers anxiety—when you feel as though you can’t speak directly to someone because everything you tell them is filtered through a layer of fear and worry. This makes conversations harder work than they should be, and more tempting to avoid.

Example 1: Person A reports to Person B, but as the team grows it will get a new manager: Person C. Person B thinks this is expected—the team is growing, and Person C has already shown they are a strong technical lead who develops people around them, and everyone else on the team has reacted well to the news. Person A reacts in panic and demands to change teams. Digging in, it turns out Person A is feeling insecure about their career growth and worries about why they weren’t considered, even though they haven’t expressed any interest in management before.

Example 2: At the end of a project, you take time to give someone some feedback on how it went. It was a success overall, and you highlight three things you think they did well, and one area where you think they could improve. They freak out, fixating on the negative, and ask if they need to start thinking about finding a new job. Digging in you learn that they have rarely had a good manager who gave them any kind of actionable feedback in their career, so what is normal for you is shocking for them.

When you have someone on your team who is anxious, everything will go better if they feel more secure. How you get to that varies, but inviting them to share their concerns and actively working to build trust helps. It also helps to name it and ask directly, “You seem more worried about this than I expected—can you tell me why that is?”

Communication issue #5: Assuming unearned trust

This shows up when people expect or assume more trust than they have.

Example 1: An engineer proposes a dramatic structural change to some code, and meets unexpected resistance from the team. The team, it turns out, is harboring residual resentment from the last big change the engineer recommended, which caused a number of problems because the complexity of it was underestimated.

Example 2: A new hire to a leadership role proposes a major change without explanation and is confused when they’re met with skepticism, even when the new leader has a track record of successful reform elsewhere. People aren’t interested in that track record, though; they see their company culture as unique, and presume that what worked somewhere else won’t just work here.

As a manager, it’s important to give trust (along with clear expectations and support) to earn trust. As a person new to a role or company, it’s important to remember that trust always needs to be earned from at least some people, so it’s safest to operate like you need to earn it from everyone.

Strong relationships are built on open and honest two way communication. Rid your communication of the common pitfalls, and you’ll be well on your way to developing the goodwill you need to manage people effectively.

Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic, where she has led the mobile and Jetpack teams.