One of the biggest challenges in any organization is effective communication. It is a skill that has to be learned by each member of the organization for communication to be effective. A lot goes into whether communication is effective or not, including knowing your audience, using the right medium, understanding and respecting differing communication styles, and learning the best timing for communication. None of these are easy. They take time and practice to develop and to top it off every organization is different in their expectations for these areas. Even communication savvy newcomers must start from scratch in learning the rhythm and methods of communication in a new organization. The cost of getting this wrong can be tremendous. According to a study conducted by SHRM, even a small company with less than 100 employees can lose $420,000 in communication errors. These errors not only stem from the obvious problems of lost revenue and increased expenses when team members are not communicating effectively, but it often leads to a high cost in lost productivity and can even lead to higher turnover costs.
Effective teams are an organization’s greatest assets. They will build each other up, elevate success, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work together on projects to amplify the strengths of others, and they will communicate well. Unfortunately, most teams don’t have this kind of synergy. The biggest area that supervisors would agree could be improved is in communication among team members. The problem is the response is generally “Why don’t you just communicate?” instead of taking the time to understand the reasons why communication might be failing in the first place. Team dynamics place a large role in how people will communicate with each other. This will include personal communication styles, sensitivities, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and even more in cultural differences. Most of us have seen communication breakdowns among teams that are largely linguistically and culturally homogenous so imagine the amplification of including our cultural and linguistic differences in communication.
Anyone who has ever communicated with someone who speaks another language knows that language barriers create tension in communication. You both know what you need the other person to know but struggle to communicate it in the language of the other. Individuals who do not speak the same language as their coworkers can be alienated because they cannot participate as easily and freely as their teammates. In addition, if an individual does not have an understanding of a language they may rely on Google translate or other tools to find the right words to say. Unfortunately, these services cannot provide context, correct phrasing, or even regional differences in communications and end up being fraught with communication errors that can frustrate the situation further.
Another important reminder is that someone’s cultural background will have a big impact on how they communicate with others. In some cultures, pausing frequently for feedback is a sign of respect to the other party where in other cultures this may be a sign that the individual does not know the material they are presenting or sharing. There are thousands of examples out there of communication breakdowns when one culture does not understand the communication styles and trends of another. Whole business deals can go downhill when those styles and values are not understood by one or both parties.
In a workplace that is growing ever more diverse by the day, how do we get our teams to effectively communicate regardless of language and cultural barriers, personality differences, and differing styles of communication? Below are 4 strategies for increasing effectiveness in communication:
- Provide translation and interpretation services for any employee with a significant language barrier. Many organizations are reluctant to provide these services because they believe it will be too expensive. I’m not suggesting you hire an interpreter to follow an employee around all-day, every day. In fact, many employees might find that insulting. My suggestion is that any critical documents be translated into the employee’s native language. How can we expect an employee to follow critical policies and procedures or to understand important updates if they cannot understand them fully? The bottom line is you shouldn’t. In addition, during important meetings like staff meetings, performance evaluations and discussions, critical one-on-one meetings with a direct supervisor, and trainings, provide an interpreter for that employee. It’s the best way to ensure the employee understood all critical information presented.
- Consider communication training. You might get further by bringing in a guest speaker, finding some online courses, or providing other training materials that discuss effective vs non-effective communication in the workplace. Often, unless someone has been trained, they may not even realize they are lacking in one or more areas that are causing communication breakdowns on the team. Investing in resources and trainings can have a tangible effect in the decrease in the approximate $420,000 in loss due to miscommunication.
- Understand why communication breakdowns are happening. We can’t fix problems if we don’t know why the problem is. In the case of communication, it’s important to understand why the communication breakdown is happening. Is it culture or language related? Is it because of a lack of understanding and respect of different communication styles? Is it related to the medium of communication? Ask yourself and your team to provide feedback on where they are seeing mishaps in the communication process. When you know the cause of the breakdown you can set expectations around it and provide training on why we need to adhere to these expectations for team communications going forward. We are never all going to be on the same page 100% of the time, but if we can set clear expectations for communication and ensure our teams understand why we are setting those expectations we can eliminate a lot of communication breakdowns.
- Be visual. We all learn in different ways and we have already discussed the breakdowns that occur due to cultural and language barriers. Providing more visual communications may be more clear, direct, concise and easier to understand. In addition, because visual communications tend to be more direct and concise there are generally less problems related to communication styles and personal differences. Demonstrate as much as possible. Relying more on showing vs telling can be a great tool to keep miscommunication to a minimum.
Effective communication can change an organization’s culture for the better. It is vital that we teach our teams how to communicate effectively especially when we work with teams that may have language and cultural barriers. Figure out the best ways to overcome these deficiencies and you are guaranteed to have a large impact in your organization. There are so many hidden business costs of not encouraging and promoting a culture of open, effective communication across diverse teams. As human resources managers or supervisors, you have the direct ability to change an entire company culture and increase profits by taking miscommunication seriously and creating a plan for change!
-Nicole Parker, Employee Growth and Organization Manager