Bad Communication in the Workplace:

Is the Way You Communicate Helping or Hindering You?

A 2020 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management uncovered that effective communication was the number one skill employees felt their direct leader could improve. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned leaders may find themselves with a gap in their communication skills, hindering their leadership abilities. In this guide, we ask nine questions to help you identify common communication mistakes, along with practical advice to correct them.

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Leaders spend about 80% of their workdays communicating according to McKinsey Global Institute, International Data Corporation, and the Journal of Communication. This may seem like a lot at first glance, but when you consider the countless emails you craft and respond to, instant messages you send, hallway conversations you partake in, and of course, the meetings you attend every single day, it really isn’t so hard to believe. 

In fact, the time, energy, and effort you put into communicating are some of the most important things you can do as a leader. This is because communication is the thread that, when done correctly, weaves every individual, team, project, and division together. It creates alignment, provides clarity, forges relationships, builds trust, inspires action, and sparks engagement. 

Given this, it is a cause for concern that researchers have found that the majority of leaders and organizations are struggling with bad communication in their workplace. In fact, it is such a problem that The Economist produced a report titled, Communication Barriers in the Modern Workplace. Their findings indicated that bad communication is causing the following problems for everyone from the c-suite to those on the frontline. 

  • Increased levels of stress (52%)
  • Delay or failure to meet accountabilities and project deadlines (44%)
  • Low morale and a negative impact on the company culture (31%)
  • Missed goals and targets (25%)
  • Imped innovation (20%)
  • Loss of sales (18%)
  • Slower career advancement (13%)

If you’ve felt these impacts yourself and wish to make meaningful changes for not only your own benefit but also the benefit of those around you, then you’ve come to the right place. In the following guide, we’ll ask you several questions to help you identify your top communication mistakes as a leader, along with practical advice and tips to begin correcting them. Let’s begin. 


Do You Use Too Much Jargon?

Jargon (which can also be referred to as business-speak or corporate lingo) is not inherently bad. In fact, when used in the proper context, it can affirm your credibility and knowledge, save time, and create a sense of shared identity and belonging. 

However, problems arise when leaders use jargon (phrases, terms, acronyms, expressions) to avoid telling the truth, mask a lack of preparation or understanding, make bad news sound less bad, or show off and signal their status. In fact, this problem has become so prevalent that there is an official “America's Most Hated Office Jargon” list and countless decoders/cheatsheets available online to help individuals figure out what it actually means when someone says things like, “Let’s not boil the ocean on this one.” 

Given the evident communication problems jargon causes, Bart Egnal, Chief Executive Officer of Niagara Institute’s long-standing partner, The Humphrey Group, wrote a 256-page book on the topic. In the book, he identifies six common types of jargon in the workplace. As you review them below, think about people or situations where you tend to skip into corporate-speak the most and try to identify where your jargon lands on the spectrum. This awareness is key to improving your leadership communication skills.

Types of Jargon Spectrum by Bart Egnal

Short-Hand Jargon: Consists of acronyms and short terms that refer to larger concepts and which are understood by the audience.

Shared Identity Jargon: Words that bring people of a specific group together and create a sense of belonging.

Assumption-Driven Jargon: Product of a speaker’s inaccurate assumption, such as assuming everyone understands an acronym.

Inflation Jargon: Replaces simple, conversational language with more words the speaker believes are more impressive.

Lack of Clarity Jargon: Impressive words are used to distract the audience from the fact that the speaker’s thinking or point is unclear.

Obfuscation Jargon: Words used, intentionally or even unconsciously, that make a speaker’s point unclear, obscure, or confusing to their audience.

Remember these wise words from Bart Egnal going forward; “[The same] jargon that allows for speed can be detrimental to those who do not understand it but are assumed to. Jargon that creates a shared identity for some can exclude others simultaneously.”

Using Jargon When Communicating at Work (1)


Do You Explain the “Why” Behind What You’re Saying?

The majority of a manager’s day is consumed by communicating with their team and others in the organization. Their time is dedicated to providing input, delegating work, writing emails asking employees to solve an issue, explaining processes, training, hosting one-on-one meetings, and providing feedback and coaching.

However, despite the sheer volume they communicate each day, there is a gap in these situations. Leaders often focus on communicating what the task at hand and how the task should be completed rather than why it is important. In other words, they do not explain their rationale or the task in the context of the bigger picture. 

Simon Sinek, the author of the wildly popular New York Times bestselling book and TED Talk, 

Start With Why, explains the importance of communicating “the why.” He believes leaders should first share the purpose, vision, or core belief (why), before the processes, methods, actions, and decisions (how), followed by the results or outcome (what) to inspire employees.

His reason for this is that we’re all hardwired to want to belong. So, when leaders take the time to explain “the why,” the vision, the purpose, and the motives behind what they’re asking, they give their employees a way to connect, identify with them, and understand how their contributions help the larger cause. 

Explaining “the why” to employees creates a sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves. When this happens, and employees believe it, you may be surprised just how eager your employees are to participate and the lengths they are willing to go to see it through. 

To help you begin explaining “the why,” consider the following:

  1. Start by being able to articulate “the why” behind what you’re doing, asking, or changing. If you don’t know why you do what you do, how will anyone else?

  2. Continually circle back to “the why.” By doing so, you help guide your team's actions and daily decisions by providing them a framework to assess if their actions and decisions align with “the why.”

  3. Ensure “the why” is in alignment with what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. If there’s not, you’ll be hard-pressed to find employees who truly believe in it and who will go to great lengths to make it a reality.


Do You Speak with Conviction?

How information is presented is as important as the information itself. The way information is communicated, ideas are presented, or how others are persuaded is significantly impacted if the presenter truly believes in what they’re saying.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines conviction as “a strong belief or opinion; the feeling of being sure that what you believe or say is true.” When we speak with conviction, we are confident and passionate about what we’re saying, and in turn, we come across as authentic, inspiring, and powerful. This is because the information is presented with a deep belief that what we’re saying is correct, and so the way it is delivered changes to using an affirmative tone, an active voice, and more decisive word choices.

In the book. Leading Through Language, author Bart Egnal expands on why speaking with confidence and conviction is so crucial for leaders; “When communication is strictly an exchange of facts of information, it can quickly become dull, jargon-laden, and even downright uninspiring to audiences. If you’re in a situation where you need to capture an audience’s hearts and minds, inspire change, or spark transformation, then you’re going to need to take it a step further and communicate with conviction and emotion.”

To speak with conviction and confidence requires mindfulness of non-verbal cues, knowing the material, believing the point of view is correct and using the right type of words to signal that belief to the audience. The following tips should help you begin to do just that. 

  1. Be Aware and Control Your Non-Verbal Signals
    What you’re saying needs to match your non-verbal communication of body language, tone, and intonation (pitch of voice). Be mindful of how you’re sitting or standing, what your arms are doing, eye contact, and the volume and speed of your voice. For example, suppose a leader is announcing a change initiative but has their arms crossed and a furrowed brow, the audience will infer that the speaker does not believe the change will be successful, even if that isn’t their actual belief.

  2. Be Prepared and Clear On Your Views
    To speak with conviction requires knowing the materials and honestly believing in the message and direction. If you’re mandated to communicate a corporate initiative but don’t feel you can speak with conviction, reach out to your leader to get additional clarity. You’re better off taking the time to understand and buy into what you’re announcing than trying to deliver a message without true conviction in what you’re saying.

  3. Choose Powerful Words
    Delivering a message with conviction requires using powerful words and avoiding words and phrases such as “appears,” “seems,” “I think,” and “maybe.’ You should also make it a point to avoid crutch words such as “you know,” “like,” “um,” and “ah.”

Speaking with Conviction When Communicating atWork (1)

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Do You Choose the Right Communication Medium?

Your ability to communicate effectively as a leader is greatly dependent on your ability to choose the right communication medium for the audience and topic at hand. As the University of Southampton notes, “A basic rule of thumb in the selection of the communication medium is that the more a message needs to change behaviors and win over hearts and minds, the more it should be delivered face-to-face.” The following spectrum demonstrates this idea. 

Types of Communication Mediums by University of Southampton

Unfortunately, not all leaders are as intentional about their chosen medium as they should be, whether that be due to a busy schedule, lack of confidence, or personal communication preferences/habits. As an article noted, this may lead to making the mistake of using emails for ongoing conversations, texting for non-urgent requests, or a team Slack channel to deliver a lengthy message on a sensitive topic. 

To avoid making such mistakes that will be labeled as “bad communication” among your employees and colleagues, we encourage you to use the following guide from Gartner to ensure your communication medium is ideally suited to your message and audience.

Central Communication Medium


Central Communication (One to Many)

This medium of communication is ideal for updating or informing a group about something that is relevant to everyone, such as a change initiative. It is typically in the form of an email, intranet post, or memo. It is a popular communication medium in the workplace, given its scalability. However, the drawback is that it is difficult to gauge the impact of the message or determine the audience’s need for clarification (unless directly asked for it).

Leadership Presentation Communication Medium


Leadership Presentation (One to Many)

In the case that you have an important announcement or need to energize and motivate a large group of people, then you are likely to host a town hall/all-company meeting or record a video message. This communication medium is a great way to address something at scale and establish that the information is credible. Bear in mind, though, that communication in this medium is typically one-way, and even if the audience wants to respond, it can be intimidating for them to do so.

Manager Cascade Communication Medium


Manager Cascade (One to Few)

If you have to inform or update a small group on time-sensitive or highly specific matters, this is the communication medium for you. It’s a great place to establish yourself as a “trusted source” of information and make your employees feel a personal connection to you and the message. However, new or unfamiliar leaders may struggle to see these benefits to the same extent as leaders with established relationships built on trust and mutual respect.

Manager Dialogue Communication Medium


Manager Dialogue (One to Few or One to One)

Unlike the previous medium, in this scenario, you would likely be speaking one-on-one with someone or partaking in a group discussion with the goal of soliciting constructive feedback, solving problems, or translating strategy into action. The success of this medium is highly dependent on your communication skills and the time you have available. However, if you have both of those, then it has the potential to spark behavioral change, engagement, and collaboration among employees.

Digital Communication Medium


Digital Platforms (One to Many or One to Few)

This communication medium utilizes intranet, collaboration platforms (ex. Slack, Teams), and even instant messaging platforms (ex. Zoom groups), to deliver time-sensitive information and alerts to a few people (ex. a team) or many people (ex. a division). Communicating in this way makes information easily accessible for everyone and is scalable, but it can be seen as “phony” if not done correctly.


Do You Encourage Two-Way Communication?

Two-way communication, also known as interpersonal communication, is when both parties, be it a manager and a direct report, a leader and the company, or an employee and a customer or supplier, are involved in the conversation.

Leaders at all levels must nurture an environment that encourages and embraces open communication. One that focuses on open dialogue and discussion where employees feel safe to share their thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions regardless of hierarchy and organizational structure. The leaders who do this successfully see the following benefits:

  • Better decision-making through diverse thoughts and experiences. This broadens a leader's perspective outside of their echo chamber.
  • Increased job satisfaction and engagement as employees understand their ideas and concerns will be heard.
  • Heightened innovation and creativity as individuals are encouraged to collaborate with others to solve problems and seize opportunities.

Allison Velez, Chief People Officer at Everside Health, strives to do exactly this every day. Here is what she had to say in a recent interview about the lengths she takes to encourage two-way conversations at her organization. 

“You want a culture that’s open to ideas, curious about things, and asks good questions. Leadership needs to create the right tone and environment for that. The other thing is to have multiple ways that we’re communicating in a two-way, bidirectional manner. And so we have regular town halls, where we open up conversations to all of our teammates, and we answer teammates’ questions: the hard questions, the easy questions, the fun questions, all of them because we want our teammates to know that they can bring up hard topics and give us feedback or share their ideas.”

Unfortunately, Allison’s sentiment and efforts are not always shared by other leaders. In fact, 86% of respondents in a Salesforce survey blame workplace failures on a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication.  Despite the high percentage of respondents finding poor communication at the root of workplace failures, there are practical things you can do as a leader to encourage two-way communication between yourself and your leaders, employees, and colleagues. They are as follows:

  • Ask for feedback, but be courageous in delivering it as well, independent of the company hierarchy. When you lead by example, it sets a benchmark that those around you can and will emulate.

  • Use a variety of mediums to facilitate two-way communication to give everyone a chance to be heard. Staff meetings can be an excellent avenue for two-way communication, but some employees may not want to share on the spot or in a large group. In which case, you can also try internal communications tools like Slack or Teams, one-on-one meetings, or quick two-person hallway conversations.

  • Be approachable and demonstrate an openness to new ideas and feedback.

  • Don’t wait for your company to create a culture of two-way communication; build that culture on your team. A team culture that encourages open dialogue by creating an environment rooted in psychological safety - where individuals behave and interact in a manner that embraces ideas without the fear of ridicule or judgment.


Do You Have Poor Timing When Communicating at Work?

The most important question to ask yourself as a leader when communicating, particularly about difficult things, is “Is this a good time?” Think about your own emotions and mindset and your audience’s. Evaluate the situation and if it warrants a conversation at that exact moment or if another time would be better. Finally, consider if what you want to talk about is relevant given the other topics in discussion and the audience in attendance. 

If it’s not the right time, you could unintentionally confuse your audience, unnecessarily upset them, or trigger conflict or backlash. All of which, will take away from the effectiveness of your communication and the likelihood that your message is truly heard and understood. To help you avoid such a situation and get your timing right, consider the following three aspects first.

Timing your communication based on attitude and emotions



It’s not just your mindset, feelings, and attitude that need to be considered; your audience’s mental and emotional state matters as well. Rather than trying to communicate in the “heat of the moment,” wait until you are both calm and then revisit the topic. At which point, you’ll find the discussion far more productive.

Choose the right environment when communicating



Before communicating with anyone at work, you should consider the current climate and if it’s genuinely the right time to deliver your message. Ask yourself things like, are they currently dealing with an urgent crisis or significant deadline? Have they just received bad or difficult news? If so, can you wait for another time?

Getting the timing right is important when communicating

Length of Time

The last thing you want to do is run out of time when communicating a message. So, before you start, consider how much time you need. Also, if you wish to engage in a two-way conversation, plan additional time for this, so it is not rushed.

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Do You Offer Constructive Feedback and Accept It In Return?

Receiving and delivering constructive feedback is central to effective communication and employee development. Employees crave constructive feedback. They want to know where they stand with their leader and improve before it becomes a problem. 

According to PwC, nearly 60% of those surveyed reported wanting feedback every day or week. Not to mention, the desire for feedback increases for those under 30, as 72% reported wanting feedback at least once a week.

Constructive feedback is not only valuable information for the one receiving it, but it also builds relationships and trust, delivers encouragement, and signals an investment in the growth and development of the person receiving feedback. The correlation between receiving regular feedback and employee satisfaction was proven in a Gallup study where employees who received feedback had 14.9% less turnover than their peers who received none.

In addition to delivering feedback, it is critical to be open to receiving it. Modeling the behaviors you want your direct reports to display is vital in leadership. If you’re not open to their feedback, how can you expect them to be open to yours?

When it comes time to deliver feedback to an employee, many leaders struggle and avoid it all together. They fear it might trigger conflict, spur demotivation, personal rejection, or negative backlash from employees or peers. Given how much employees desire feedback, managers and leaders must overcome their fear by gaining knowledge and practicing their feedback skills to become more confident. This process can be fast-tracked by enrolling in a leadership development program.

To get you started, here are eight best practices from our guide, Constructive Feedback: A Manager’s Guide to Giving Feedback That People Actually Want, that you can apply today.

  1. Be Aware of Your Mindset Before Delivering Feedback: Out of frustration and stress, we can say things we later regret. Before delivering feedback, ask yourself, “Is this helpful or hurtful?” and “Am I coming from a place of trying to help them learn or acting out of frustration?” Being aware of your mindset before delivering feedback will help ensure you approach the situation with the right intentions.

  2. Practice Self-Reflection: Much like checking your mindset before delivering feedback, you will want to also reflect on the situation to see if you may have contributed to the outcome before jumping to what the other person did wrong.

  3. Deliver Feedback as it Happens: Feedback shouldn’t be reserved once a year at review time. Giving feedback when you witness something positive or when an individual could use some coaching makes the feedback you’re delivering much more effective and relevant.

  4. Just Do It: Avoid starting the feedback conversation by asking, “Can I give you some feedback?” Feedback should be delivered at the moment and be a two-way conversation; thus, keep it natural and just jump in as part of the flow of conversation.

  5. Keep It Conversational: Feedback isn’t a one-way conversation where the leader is the only one speaking. It has been found that the better an employee ranked their manager on how well they listened, the higher they ranked their feedback abilities. What this means is that you want to ask questions and listen to the individual's viewpoint before jumping into delivering feedback. It will also help you gauge how coachable they are at that moment.

  6. Avoid Blanket Statements: Constructive feedback should be specific, relevant, clear, factual, and based on your experience, not hearsay. Avoid blanket statements such as “I always find mistakes in your report” to one that is specific and relevant to the situation, such as “I noticed a mistake in the calculation in the chart on page three of the report you sent on Tuesday. Let’s formulate a plan to ensure the report is double-checked before being sent.”

  7. Explain the Importance: For feedback to stick and a change in behavior to take place, individuals need to understand the importance behind the feedback and the magnitude of the situation. Giving reasoning for your feedback helps put the feedback in content for the one receiving it.

  8. Provide Coaching: Often, individuals are already aware of the situation before delivering feedback. Yet, the part they’re struggling with is how to change. Providing ongoing coaching and creating an action plan together will help your employee address the root cause of the problem, so you can move together to fix it.

Offer and Accept Constructive Feedback at Work (1)


Do You Adequately Prepare Yourself?

Effective communication in the workplace begins even before you speak a word or type a letter. It requires preparation and intentionality, which can be difficult for leaders who are all too often dealing with heavy workloads, jam-packed schedules, and high expectations

While it can be challenging to find the time to prepare, it’s crucial if you want your message to be delivered as you intend it to be. In fact, it was uncovered that the number one thing professionals struggle with in communication at work is saying what they really mean in the moment, making preparation that much more important.

Not to mention, when you are prepared to communicate, you can pay more attention to your non-verbal communication, actively avoid jargon, and even encourage two-way communication. 

Granted, you may not need or be able to prepare for every hallway conversation or instant message. However, you can (and should!) prepare for situations such as staff meetings, difficult conversations, one-on-one meetings, or performance reviews. 

In his book, Leading Through Language, Bart Egnal not only outlines what you should prepare in these situations but provides examples as well. He notes that “by having all three elements clear in your mind before you speak, you will be well-positioned to communicate clearly and effectively. You will have thought about your audience, how you want to move them, and what message you need to convey to help them think differently.”


Define the Subject/Topic of the Conversation

Before engaging in communication, you will want to define the subject/topic. It will help you focus on the topic rather than anything that comes up in passing.


Example 1: Subject Is Too General

  • Instead of: “I thought I could tell you a few things about this new product we’re offering”
  • Try: “In this presentation, I would like to discuss the timing of the new product rollout and who will be accountable for each step.”


Example 2: Subject Is Too Negative

  • Instead of: “We are meeting to go over the mistakes you have made.”
  • Try: "We are meeting to discuss creating a plan to help you get back to being a high performer.”


Focus on One Message At a Time

Ineffective or bad communication often happens when leaders try to speak on too many subjects/topics at once. To avoid this, focus on one message at a time and speak with as much clarity as you can as you do so.


Example 1: Message Is Impersonal

  • Instead of:“ The company’s new strategy is designed to enable us to expand into the European retail market.”

  • Try: “I firmly believe that our new strategy will enable us to expand into the European retail market.”


Example 2: Message Is Negative and Unfocused

  • Instead of: “You aren’t really making this easy on us. We’re supposed to be partners but you keep driving our pricing down. We’ll do it if that’s what it takes.”

  • Try: “We want to stress that this partnership is important to us and we’re willing to compromise on pricing to cement a deal.”


Example 3: Message Is Jargon-Ridden

  • Instead of: "It is a market reality that some customers are more profitable than others. To optimize our EBITDA return in this market, the decision has been made to rationalize our client book to increase yield.”

  • Try: “We have been bleeding market share too long, and the time has come to deal only with our high-performing customers.”


Determine Your Call to Action

You need to make it abundantly clear to your audience what you expect from them at the close of the conversation. So, always be sure to identify what you expect them to do next before you begin communicating. 


Example 1: Call to Action Is Vague

  • Instead of: “The project will go better if everyone pitches in over the next few weeks and going forward.”

  • Try: “I need everyone to review the project timelines and meet in their working groups by Friday to identify any obstacles to completing this on time.”


Example 2: Call to Action Is Not Time-Bound

  • Instead of: “I need you to write a personal development plan and review it with me.”

  • Try: “I need you to write a personal development plan and provide it to me by the end of the month.”


Do You Listen Enough?

In leadership, a significant amount of time is spent figuring out what to say and how to say it. But how often do you make an intentional point of listening to understand someone, particularly your employees? All too often, when others are speaking, we are focused on mentally preparing a response rather than understanding what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. As you can imagine, this can severely hinder your ability to communicate effectively. 

As the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE), Jack Welch, once said, “Real communication is an attitude, an environment. It is the most interactive of all processes. It requires countless hours of eyeball to eyeball, back and forth. It involves listening more than talking.” 

In fact, research has shown that taking this approach to communication will improve your effectiveness as a leader and the lives of your employees and colleagues. For instance, raising someone’s pay is tied to increased job satisfaction. Yet, research has found that the correlation between pay and job satisfaction is only .15. While perceived listening by supervisors and employees’ job satisfaction is notably higher at .43. 

The benefits don’t stop there, though. Additional benefits of listening at work include improved: 

  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Creativity
  • Job performance
  • Organizational commitment
  • Leadership effectiveness
  • Personal well-being

To help you unlock these benefits, consider what you can learn by listening to those you speak with that can then be used to improve your own communication. According to Bart Egnal, Chief Executive Officer of Niagara Institute’s long-standing partner, The Humphrey Group, you can learn valuable information about your audience’s dialect, mindset, and mood just by listening. To uncover such information, try to answer the following questions early on in a conversation so that you can then adapt your communications style accordingly. 

  • Does your audience use personal, casual language, or do they prefer formal language? 

  • Is their tone understated, or do people passionately champion their ideas?

  • Is your audience angry, excited, stressed, or happy? 

  • What is their overall level of interest, resistance, or engagement? What is that level in terms of the topic at hand? 

  • Are your ideas top of mind, or will they be completely new?


Next Steps: Learn to Communicate with Niagara Institute

As seen throughout this guide, effective leadership communication is complicated, and there is much more to it than just delivering information. However, for leaders at all levels, communicating to inspire others to take action is one of the most essential skills they can have.

Yet, one 2020 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management uncovered that effective communication was the number one skill employees felt their direct leader could improve. The same study also discovered that 84% of employees agreed that poorly trained managers create significant unnecessary work and stress. Thus, there is a need for upskilling in leaders on effective communication.

Developing communication skills requires knowledge and practice that can be gained through attending a leadership training program designed to equip leaders with the skills they need. Niagara Institute’s highly-regarded Speaking as a Leader is an ideal fit for leaders at all levels to become the influential communicator they know they can be and their direct reports need.

Speaking as a Leader is delivered multiple times a year in an open-enrollment format (individuals from various organizations). It is also available for teams (individuals from the same organization) of ten or more participants.

If you’re ready to make a more significant impact and upskill your leadership and communication abilities, our team is here to help you select the right program for you or your organization.

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