5 Sources of Miscommunication In The Workplace

"That isn't what I meant..."

How many times have we thought this after someone misunderstood us?

Poor communication leading to miscommunication is constantly ranked as one of the biggest problems in workplaces today.

Here are 5 of the main causes.


Allow me to communicate this in a succinct and direct way.

Miscommunication happens because of a breakdown in one of three areas:

  1. The sender fails to send an appropriate message to the recipient.
  2. The language used in the message is insufficient or inappropriate to communicate its intended meaning.
  3. The recipient's interpretation of the message sent is not identical to what the sender had intended.

These are 5 of the most common reasons one, or more, of these breakdowns may occur.


The first source of miscommunication in the workplace is also one of the most unnecessary.

Imagine receiving an email from your boss stating that, ..."in the name of efficiency, a major source of redundancy will be eliminated in the coming weeks...stay tuned."

There isn't a lot of information here to understand exactly what your boss means.

What happens next is where the miscommunication comes in.

Some employees who read this email will ASSUME that "efficiency" and "redundancy" are management speak for layoffs.

The next thing these employees do is to run to the coworker next to them and say:

"Did you hear? The company is laying off a bunch of people."

Your coworker, who has just read the email, was thinking something similar to you.

Your assumption adds validity to their own suspicion, increasing the perceived likelihood you and he are correct.

So, now your coworker makes the presumption that the email indeed means that layoffs are imminent. 

So the two of you approach a third employee and tell her what you believe the email means.

That employee, upon hearing this from two intelligent and trustworthy colleagues, concludes that your assumption and presumption are fact.

All three of you go home that evening, miserable and worried about losing your jobs.

The next day a second email is received from your boss expanding upon the previous day's.

It states, "Over the next two weeks, all departments will no longer have to print and file paper copies of all customer correspondence as back up to the electronically saved files."


This source of miscommunication could have been avoided by going to your boss, expressing your concerns, and asking for some clarification.


This source of miscommunication is also quite unnecessary

It stems from our reliance on text-based communication such as emails and text messages.

The problem is, as many of us know, that as much as 93% of our communication has nothing to do with the words we use

55% of our communication is from body language and 38% is from tone of voice

Neither of these are present in email or text messages.

So, when the recipient of a message only receives 7% of it (the amount based on the words used), it is up to them to fill in the rest...

Often this takes us back to the first source of miscommunication already discussed.

Consider this example, you receive an email or text message that simply states:

"She can't do that."

What is the message actually saying?

Is the message:

  • SHE can't do that.
  • She CAN'T do that.
  • She can't do THAT.

Each three have very different meanings.

Unfortunately, because you are reading these three statements rather than hearing me speak them...you will never know which I intended to be the case.


This source of miscommunication is becoming more common as employees satisfy their increasing need to sound smart, professional, and business-savvy.

Here is an actual email I received from a former client last year. 

"...Senior leadership has determined, via our process of blue-sky thinking, that to maximize our return on investment from employees the company must drill-down on the sources of departmental silo'ing."

It continued...

"We believe employees must work more synergistically using best practices in conflict resolution to ensure they reach optimal productivity."

I wish I was kidding...but no...it's real.

And it sounds VERY professional.

But what exactly are they saying?

When I spoke directly to its author, and posed this question, the answer was:

"We want our staff to work better together so they get more work done."

So...why didn't they say this in the first place?

The most effective communications are those that are also the most direct

When any communication is made unnecessarily complex, the likelihood that the message will be misunderstood, or lost entirely, dramatically increases.

If you are guilty of this, remember this little bit of wisdom we borrowed from the field of sales training:

Most professionals spend 5 minutes making the sale only to spend the next 15 minutes losing it.

Communicate directly, respectfully, and honestly.


This likely goes without saying but I will say it anyway.

Think back to the first source we discussed and the original email from the boss.

It read, "in the name of efficiency, a major source of redundancy will be eliminated in the coming weeks...stay tuned."

Given the language used in this email, the boss invited miscommunication to his party.

He should have known that this communication provided far too little information.

He could have prevented most, or all, of the miscommunication by providing more of an explanation as to what he meant.

It is important to always remember that there are 3 basic components of any communication.

These are:

  1. The message that the sender believes they are sending.
  2. The literal message being sent (i.e. the words and language used)
  3. The message that the receiver receives.

All 3 are influenced by the presence or absence of non-verbal cues to varying degrees.

What you need to take away from this is that the message you send (#1) isn't very important.

What IS important is #3, the message that is received

When the boss sent his message he should have looked at it and asked himself: 

"If I have no knowledge of anything other than what is in this communication, what message would I receive?"

When we leave out potentially important pieces of information from our communication, we create a knowledge gap.

Knowledge gaps have a tendency to be filled and if accurate information isn't available...

...People will fill it with whatever is.


This last major source of miscommunication is the flip-side of #4.

It is also quite often connected to #3.

When the sender of a communication is particularly risk-averse they tend to over-explain their meaning.

Risk-averse people fear uncertainty

So, in an attempt to ensure their message is very clear, they state their message in great detail.

They will often, then, repeat their message a second and third time just to make sure it is really clear.

At first, this may not sound like that big a deal to you.

More information is better than not enough, right?

Not always.

Remember what I just said.

The message the recipient of a communication receives is far more important than the message the sender sends.

What often happens when a sender over-explains their meaning is that the true message of the communication gets missed.

The recipient, instead, gets bogged down by the extensive details and lost in the long, drawn out explanation.

Over-explaining a message is more likely to confuse the communication's recipient and cause them to stop listening or reading before they understand the message...

Especially when the sender over-clarifies by using lots of silly buzzwords such as "synergistic", "best practices", and "parking lot".

When communicating, simple is always better

Simply say what you mean to say

Don't worry about how "professional" you sound.

Don't be concerned that 1 of the 3000 employees receiving the message may not understand your meaning.

Communicate directly, respectfully, and honestly.


Good communication isn't necessarily efficient communication.

Nor is it the most detailed communication.

Good communication is simply communication where the message sent and the message received are the same.

In some situations, this may be accomplished in a single sentence.

In others, it may require a paragraph or two.

There is no hard, fast rule.

It usually comes down to deciding on what message you actually want to communicate.

Then, communicating directly, respectfully, and honestly, send that message in a way that will be meaningful to the intended recipients.

It really is that simple.

The underlying principles of communication mirror the underlying principles of amazing employee behaviour. Find out more by clicking the button below.