It is common for organisations to have problems that can be traced to poor communication, and equally common for those organisations to resolve to correct those problems by improving communication. Somehow, though, improving commuincation turns out not to be as easy as resolving to improve communication, and these resolutions frequently fail or only succeed partially.

This briefing paper examines potential explanations for this failure and attempts to resolve them.


Failure to communicate can have many causes. Some may be as obvious as poor competence in a language, poor education; others may be equally obvious but rather different: anxiety; fear; self-doubt; secretiveness; competitiveness; and so on.

To trace causes we need some diagnostic tests. Here are a few questions that may help some at least to diagnose their own attitudes to communication.

  • Do you really want to communicate? (Never mind company policy and the rather obvious need for colleagues to communicate; ask yourself whether you really want to; are you a sharing person?)
    • Non-sharing people are typically suspicious of their colleagues. They suspect that they will steal their ideas, take credit for things they did not think of, or perhaps laugh at or ridicule the ideas of others.
    • Non-sharing people think of communication the way some think of giving blood or money: they see communication as a matter of giving away something that is theirs and upon which their livelihood or reputation may hang. Fundamentally they see communication in terms of loss, especially loss of ownership or loss of control.
    • Non-sharing people are essentially loners who do not believe, even if they pretend to believe, in corporate health and that the good of the company enhances the good of all. (Of course, in some companies they are right.) In particular, they are not team players; they do not expect what they give to be reciprocated by others; they do not expect to receive back more than they give, or even as much.
  • Do you think about what others need when you communicate?
    • Frequently communication is conceived, designed and measured in terms of the needs of the sender: I need you to do this so that such-and-such will happen that I am responsible for. Senders do not ask about what receivers need, why they should co-operate, how communication can help them do their jobs better, be more efficient, and so on.
    • Communication needs to be timely, to give the receiver options about when to respond, how to respond, and to adjust other responsibilities to accommodate the request or implications of the communication.
    • “Urgent!” is a dirty word: it almost always means that the sender has left things too late and now proposes to inconvenience (cf. Golden Rule 1) the receiver in order to extricate him or herself from the dilemma that an impending deadline represents. The receiver is perfectly entitled to say “Urgent for whom? Certainly not for me! You have just been inefficient and left this to the very last moment. Not my problem.”
    • Blame is a cancer. Blame is often a cousin to urgency: “I sent you an urgent email that was clearly marked as urgent and you didn’t respond or do anything about it”. Yes, but if the email was sent very late, the blame does not lie with the failure of the recipient; it lies with the inefficiency and, frankly, inconsiderateness of the sender.
    • Anticipation is kingly. If your communication anticipates what the receiver needs, the other demands on the receiver’s time, the resources that the receiver might need in order to respond to it, and possible inconvenience it will occasion the receiver to respond to it in a timely way, it is far more likely to evoke a positive and collaborative response that embodies collegial qualities.
  • Have you estimated the cost-benefit ratio of your communication?
    • It is terribly easy to write an email or make a request in 3 minutes that will involve someone else in days, weeks or months of work. Have you estimated the time it will take to respond to your communication? Is the time worth it, even if the time is not yours and not on your budget? Does it benefit the corporate body enough to justify the expenditure of resources on it?
    • Have you struggled to make your communication as brief as possible without losing essential content? It is easy to write long, rambling, incoherent emails because we have not done the necessary preparatory work to make the communication clear and succinct; in effect we are making the recipient do our jobs for us. “Let them make sense of it” becomes a lazy way to avoid doing our own analysis.
    • Are you asking the right person? Sometimes we assume that someone has the knowledge and skills necessary for a particular task when they do not, and so the time it will take them to do the task is greatly increased because they will first have to work out how to do something.
    • Are you asking too many people? The “Cc:” field of an email is potentially a terrible waste of time and resources that can eat up hundreds and thousands of hours of coporate time because recipients do not need to receive the communication you are sending. Sometimes you use the “Cc:” field as a kind of threat: all these other people know I have written to you, so you’d better respond favourably and in good time or they will all know that you have failed me. This is just playground bullying in another guise. Even if you are not bullying, you may be informing people who really don’t need to know. Don’t do it. And certainly don’t copy everyone in on the basis that it is better to tell everyone than risk not telling someone who should know.
  • Have you asked who needs to know and why?
    • This is potentially the heart of it all. To answer this question requires the sender to be competent at a high level, to know the business of the corporation well, to know what matters to whom and what does not. And so ability to answer this positively is itself a symptom of a very good and efficient corporate communication system, because only with such can every member of the organisation know what others need to know, might need to know, or not need to know.
    • Here lies a boundary that is hard to define between appropriate knowledge of what others are doing and intrusive or impertinent knowledge of what others are doing. If I don’t know much about your world, I cannot know whether something I am doing might have a bearing on that world; but equally, if I am too interested in your world I may miss things that I should be attending to in my own.
  • Have you asked how much communication is appropriate?
    • Both too much and too little communication causes problems, and of course there is no such thing as exactly the right amount; there are always tolerances in both directions. But too much certainly wastes time and too little prevents the corporation operating efficiently.
    • If excessive communication seems unavoidable, several questions needs to be asked:
      • Is so much happening that it cannot even be communicated, let alone implemented? This can be an issue with organisations which are rich in ideas but less successful at implementation: they generate so many initiatives that they fall over themselves trying to implement too many of them. This is not then a failure of communication; it is a failure of planning management and, frankly, self-discipline, on the part of those who are having all the ideas.
      • Is so little happening that people are filling the void with unnecessary communication because they have nothing else to do?
    • If there is a lot of correspondence (emailing) but not enough communication, then there is a deficiency in clarity and focus, and sometimes perhaps the ideas are not being thought through sufficiently before the communication begins: “let them sort it out” is the mind-set; or “this is a good idea; let’s run with it and see whether it comes to anything” and then everyone runs around for hours, days or weeks until it turns out to be unworkable and everyone has wasted a lot of time.
  • Are your communications coherent, connected and constructive?
    • Communication that forms part of a coherent chain where past, present and future link together in a connected way can naturally be briefer and achieve more – be more constructive – that communication that constantly breaks new ground and therefore requires the recipient(s) to create or imagine new worlds every time a new communication arrives.
    • Like the problems arising from the chaos of new ideas mentioned before, communication needs stability, a sense of building and flow, a sense of being a part of a past, present and future that have coherence and predictability as well as clearly embedded memories. Without that coherence and continuity there cannot be constructive communication because everyone is left guessing what will happen next.
  • Do your recipients understand the context of your communication?
    • Where the past is malleable and the future unpredictable, communication is hit-and-miss, but more to the point it requires recipients to be what might be called “mind-readers”, people who can imagine the context of communications that have neither past nor future of which they are apprised.
    • Context means that the communication needs to be set clearly in a framework where it is understood to be speculative, exploratory, analytical, research-orientated, concrete (etc.) so that recipients know how to prioritise it and the level of detail and style of response required.
  • Has the concept or idea or strategy actually been shared?
    • Human beings sometimes suffer from a kind of phantom memory in that by saying something to someone – and sometimes even just having thought something to themselves – they imagine that they have shared it with everyone. This can cause great distress among employees and potential recipients, because the originator of an idea who has the phantom memory of having shared it imagines that everyone knows far more than they do about it.
  • Has the communication been prioritised?
    • The recipients of a communication have other duties and responsibilities. Does the communication accurately convey its actual importance (which is not the same as the urgency with which the sender might think it needs to be dealt with and responded to).
    • If there is a deadline, has it been negotiated? Simply sending an email and stating a deadline as if the recipient has nothing else to do but meet it is at best inconsiderate and at worst a kind of bullying.
    • Deadlines must always be negotiated.
  • Have fail-safes been implemented to protect sender and recipient?
    • Sometimes people will complain that someone hasn’t replied to an email for three months and use that as their excuse for their own inactivity or failings, but have they sent a reminder; did they give the recipient notice of the importance of a response; is the personal penumbra of their relationship likely to command respect and compliance? If the answer to any of these is no, better fail-safes are needed: let’s implement a strategy to ensure neither of us fails!
  • Who corporately needs to know and why?
    • The same question we asked before can also be applied to the whole corporation: where there is a breakdown in communication, has the corporation asked and answered the question “Who needs to know and why?”
    • One reason why the answer might be no is that the corporation itself has not thought through the question or fully focused its vision
    • Others might be: reluctance to share plans; institutional secrecy; lack of trust; lack of belief in the contribution that sharing can engender; reluctance to delegate responsibility, initiative-taking and vision.
    • Part of all this is about what motivates the people who are the driving-force behind an organisation: is it achievement of a goal; is it being the boss; is it being the visionary; is it being thought the visionary; is it being powerful; is it being obeyed; is it not being questioned; is it making money; is it making the world a better place for other people; and many other possibilities that it could be?
    • But at the root of all this lies one question: does the organisation believe that its most successful future will only arise by releasing the talents of those who work in it? If so, without communication it cannot achieve that objective because nobody knows what they are expected to do.
  • How does communication invite feedback?
    • One of the most difficult environments to encourage and control is that which arises from the open expression of divergent opinions within the organisation.
    • Is communcation purely directive: do this; do that; don’t argue; don’t express doubts and questions? If so, dissent is systematically suppressed and all creative thought with it. But much dissent is positive and creative thought motivates employees, so their suppression seriously limits the organisation.
    • A culture where communication is bidirectional encourages disagreement and welcomes questions, but it involves great self-confidence by the organisation to invite such positive criticism.
  • How does communication reflect corporate culture?
    • Ineffective communication says something about the culture of the corporation. It is a symptom of health and disease. From communication it is possible to measure whether members of the organisation are together or apart, share a common purpose as a team or see themselves essentially as independent individuals who are looking after their own worlds.
    • Communication that is couched in terms of urgency, threat, blame, accusation, criticism, reflects a corporate culture that is sick with fear and anxiety. Fearful employees do not work or think creatively and enthusiastically; they feign both, but their real enthusiasm is locked out.
  • Does your communication act like a terrorist bomb?
    • One of the most striking things about email as contrasted with a physical letter in an envelope or a personal conversation is that it is asynchronic: it can arrive without any prior warning, have been written in a mood of which the recipient can have no knowledge, and often reflect concerns of which the recipient is in ignorance. As a result, the tone, content and mood of an email can strike at a moment and in a way that creates consternation, confusion, fright, fear, anger in the recipient, exactly as would be the result of a physical assault or an emergency requiring instant and decisive action.
    • Immediately an unhealthy situation has been created that threatens the harmony of the relationship between sender and recipient, and the danger is that the recipient will reply hurriedly and angrily, thus amplifying the hurt. So here there is another Golden Rule (Golden Rule 2): don’t reply in haste to a communication that has caused you to have negative feelings.
  • Have you considered the impact your communication will have?
    • It follows immediately from the preceding section that senders need to be sensitive to the circumstances of and the person by whom a communication – especially an email – will be received. If it is likely to come as a surprise, the ground needs making first; if it contains bad news, the news needs couching in suitable terms; if it involves criticism, the criticism should be fair and balanced (but better made in person rather than bby email or some other impersonal means that can easily be construed as a reflection of cowardice).
    • Failure to take the circumstances of another person into account can cause problems in seconds that it may take months or years to remedy.
    • One common problem with communication, even if it is couched in very considerate terms, is that sometimes the content may itself cause problems. For example, if people learn of something that may affect them by an impersonal email, or where they feel they should have been part of a consultation process when all they are sent is a decision, no amount of careful drafting will serve to eliminate their dissatisfaction.
  • Is the mode of communication appropriate?
    • Email has many benefits, but it is not the best way to voice complaints, express dissatisfaction, or convey bad news.
    • Some things needs to be conveyed personally, face-to-face.

Golden Rule 1. The world is divided into two kinds of people: Those who in order to avoid inconveniencing others will inconvenience themselves; and those who in order to avoid inconveniencing themselves will inconvenience others.

Golden Rule 2. Never reply in haste or anger to a communication that has upset you. Write a strong reply if you must, but put it aside for a few hours or days. Then, when the time is ripe, express your hurt in a constructive way that has a chance to ensure that the same thing does not happen again.


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