Poor Communication Can Kill Personal Productivity

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” — Actors Strother Martin and Paul Newman at various times during the film Cool Hand Luke, 1967

“It seems rather incongruous that in a society of super-sophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.” — Erma Bombeck, American humorist.

“Communication—the human connection—is the key to personal and career success.” — Paul J. Meyer, American motivational guru.

Most people just don’t talk anymore. Oh, we blather on about this and that, but too often we don’t actually communicate. Even in our private conversations, it sometimes seems like too much effort to say more than the bare minimum; and of course, really getting into a conversation takes away from our limited store of time. How ironic that in the Information Age, when we have more ways to communicate than ever before, we actually seem to converse less.

Bad enough that this in-a-hurry existence spawns the sort of cultural anomie instant communication ought to erase. But when it takes place in the workplace, as it so often does, poor communication can absolutely wreck employee productivity. Productivity at work—any work, from logging camps to ICUs and white collar offices—depends on people knowing exactly what they need to do from moment to moment. Thus, relaying instructions and requests for new tasks, whether vertically or laterally within an organization, requires clear, concise communication between the participants.

Counting The Cost

The need for clear workplace communication may seem obvious at first glance; but as with so many things, the common sense about communication isn’t always so common. Too often, requests or orders lack clarity, even at the most basic level; usually, they boil down to little more than “please get this done” without any details as to how and when (and the “please” is optional from superior to subordinate).

Worse, many recipients of flawed communications are reluctant to ask for clarification. The reasons vary from fear to laziness. Sometimes, they just don’t want to irritate the requestor by pestering them for more information. In other instances, they don’t care to invest the time required. Whatever the cause, they sometimes end up climbing the wrong mountain as a result, generating an avalanche of wasted effort and time. In other words, failure results because they didn’t want to bother someone…or just didn’t want to bother.

Maximizing Your Investment

We’ve all suffered the results of tangled communications at one point or another. For example: I like to tell the story of a CEO at an automotive company who asked an accountant for a ballpark estimate on something—an estimate he thought might take 15 minutes to produce. The accountant spent ten hours coming up with a very accurate estimate. Both people were equally to blame in this instance: the CEO for not making his assumptions clear, and the accountant for not clarifying the order.

So when communicating, consider both sides of the equation. The next time you need to relay a request or order to someone on your team, think about it a little first. Type it out, and then edit it for maximum clarity before sending. Mull over the structure of the message. Have you used any jargon the recipient might not share? Have you couched it in vague or indefinite terms, or did you hem and haw? Have you laid out a definite deadline, or did you employ passive phrases like “if possible” or “when you can”?

You can’t afford to do any of those things. Instead, construct your communications as tightly as possible. Fancy or murky language can easily lead people down the wrong path, so don’t use a $5 word when a penny one will do. Lay out specific expectations on deliverables in terms of both timeline and quality. And don’t forget: certain assumptions that work just fine with specific co-workers or subordinates may break down when applied to others, especially if you don’t often work with them, or if they’re new to the team. They may not share a common frame of reference with you, which may leave them in the dark or lead them down the wrong path.

Finally, ask for acknowledgement of both receipt of the message and understanding of it, and make it clear that the recipients can ask you clarification questions if they don’t understand.

Treat other people’s requests or orders as you would expect them to treat yours. If the communication seems cloudy, politely ask them to clarify what they need from you until you understand completely. Continue to ask questions even in the face of their irritation, if you must. That way, you limit your chances of getting something wrong—which will certainly incur the requestor’s wrath, and negatively impact your workflow. Or even your job, if you get slantwise with the boss.

The Bottom Line

If you want to raise your team and personal productivity, and ultimately pad the company’s bottom line, then you must communicate completely and clearly with your co-workers, superiors, and subordinates. Doing so is especially crucial when you need something integral to maintaining your workflow. Clear communication doesn’t require that much time or effort—and the results invariably justify the investment. If you’ll take the few minutes necessary at the outset to make sure that everyone involved has received and understood a communication properly, then you all have a much better chance of getting what you want in the end.



  1. […] Poorly defined requirements. If you can’t get the project sponsors to take enough interest to clarify their requirements, then you’re in trouble from the start. A one-line requirements document that says something […]

  2. […] you can’t get the project sponsors to take enough interest to clarify their requirements, then you’re in trouble from the start. A one-line requirements document that says something […]