Communication issues top list of problems at work

If you ask people what the biggest people problem is at work, they are likely to agree with one voice, “Communication!” Communication problems are at the heart of many workplace problems and the end result is loss of trust, teamwork and productivity. Here are some common sense rules that are too often broken. (Yes, we should know better but admit it, you’ve probably broken one or two of these yourself.) 

§         Criticizing one peer to another peer.


It may be comforting to vent to a colleague when another colleague gets your goat. The other person may be smiling and listening--perhaps even commiserating—but secretly, he or she is thinking, “She may be talking about me behind my back, too.” Peers will be cautious about telling you too much and will emotionally distance themselves.


§         Talking about one employee’s performance to another employee.


Even if you are emotionally closer to one employee, it is still communication quicksand to discuss one employee with his or her peer. Recently, a manager asked me, “What if an employee is in a disciplinary situation and one of her peers comes to me to complain and demand that I take action? Is it okay to tell him that she is already in disciplinary action? If I don’t say anything to him, he won’t know that I’m doing something about it.”


Even in a case like this, it’s important to maintain confidentiality. If you share this information with other employees, it signals that you will not respect their private performance issues, either. An appropriate response would be, “I’m aware of the situation and I’m dealing with it.”


§         Socializing with one employee but not others.


“But I am totally objective when it comes to my employees’ performance,” a manager told me, when I suggested that she reexamine her relationship with one of her female employees. “We enjoy traveling together.”


Unfortunately, the rest of her employees didn’t see it that way. Their perception was that her employee was getting favored treatment—better projects, stretching her lunch hours and relaxed performance standards. At the very least, they believed that the manager was talking about work with her employee/friend and surely must be sharing more information with her than with the rest of the team. In cases such as this, perception is reality. No matter how much the manager protests that she is fair and even-handed, it appears that the boss’s friend has an unfair advantage.


§         Discussing family matters at work.


Revealing too much about your private life is usually a mistake. While it’s tempting to unload on a colleague at work, it’s risky. Unfortunately, you can’t just walk away from a work friendship that sours. You must face the person every day, with the knowledge that he or she knows more about you than you’d like them to. This feeling of vulnerability breeds distrust and resentment—not a good mix at work.


§         Expressing dissatisfaction about your employer.


Occasional frustration about your employer is inevitable, no matter where you work. But when that frustration bubbles over into open criticism to coworkers or people outside of the organization, you are on thin ice. Comments have a way of circling back.


If you find that you are starting to sound bitter, it’s time reevaluate your situation. Either lead, follow or get out of the way and find a better situation where you can be happy.


§         Going over your boss’s head to complain to his or her boss.


Except in extreme situations such as harassment or evidence of unethical behavior, it’s always better to find alternative methods to resolve a problem concerning your supervisor. As soon as the next level up becomes involved, things get more complicated.


The senior manager is put in the tricky position of bringing up the problem without jeopardizing the relationship between the supervisor and the employee who complained. In cases such as this, the complaining employee often says, “I want you to fix this but I don’t want you to tell him it was me who complained.” This leaves the manager in a no win position. If the senior manager botches the job of coaching the supervisor, the supervisor may retaliate, either directly or subtly.


In the end, it’s always better to deal directly with the offending supervisor first. Then if changes aren’t made, you’ve given him or her fair warning, should you decide to go to Human Resources for advice, to his or her boss, or communicate your dissatisfaction by leaving the job.


§         Revealing departmental problems to people outside the department.


Sharing your department’s dirty laundry is akin to discussing personal family problems with outsiders. It only makes the situation worse. It is viewed as a form of betrayal and will make you look politically naive.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
About Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd & Associates provide
FREE subscription to receive Joan's article by email

Email Joan to submit your question for consideration for publication, request permission to reprint an article for distribution, or for information about carrying Joan Lloyd's weekly column in your publication, or on your Internet or Intranet site. Visit to search an archive of more than 1700 of Joan's articles.
© Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc.