The Cost of Bad Communication

It’s pretty normal to feel like your profession is mocked a little too much. Just ask a lawyer or a car salesman. Or a politician. And while there are always a few bad actors who give any line of work a bad name, most are honest practitioners trying to do good work (being married to an elected official, I had to turn that one around quickly).

Most jests are just that. A bit of lighthearted occupational ribbing. It’s important not to take it personally. That said, as a communication professional, I lose my shit when someone refers to this disciple under the umbrella of “soft skills.”

Communication skills consistently rank at the top of employers’ lists of desired skills and yet they are inconsistently taught in academic programs. The workplace only reinforces the worst status quo (exhaustively long emails, droning presentations with info-packed slides) because that’s all anyone ever sees. In the end, these same surveys citing the importance of communication skills report that most employees have extreme deficiencies in these areas as well.

With an increasingly virtual world of work and “the great resignation,” good communication matters more than ever. However, regardless of how much we bang this drum, no one seems to notice. These critical skills are still—annoyingly—referred to as soft skills, effectively banishing them to nonessential status. A nice to have but not a need to have.

But what if we tried a different approach? What if we talked more about the cost of doing nothing? What is the cost of bad communication?

The Hard Truth

As it turns out, there’s a lot of data on this. Honestly, I was surprised to see so much and from reputable sources like SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management.

In their piece “A Business Rationale for the Communication Competency,” SHRM cites the following: A survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each noted an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication. 

What about small businesses, you ask? In her article “Top Ten Email Blunders that Cost Companies Money,” Debra Hamilton cites that miscommunication costs smaller companies of 100 employees an average of $420,000 per year.

Dig a little deeper and it gets even more specific—and startling.

  • When asked, 28% of employees gave poor communication as the reason for missed deadlines (Computing Technology Industry Association).
  • Research from Salesforce shows that 86% of employees and executives believe ineffective communication is the underlying reason for workplace failures.
  • A study from the Economist Intelligence Unit reports that poor communication can result in low employee morale (31% of cases) and lost sales (18%).

In the end, to get away from the label of soft skills perhaps we should call them cost-savings skills? Or, you can flip this the other way and talk about the gains you can make with more effective communication. McKinsey shows that when employees are more connected communicators, productivity can jump as much as 20–25%.

And now that I’ve gotten your attention, what can you do about it to ensure you aren’t losing money—and people?

What We Can Do About It

First, determine what the communication challenges look like at your organization. While general data like I’ve just shared can point you in the right direction, it doesn’t speak to what your team is struggling with.

Start with a survey of your team focusing solely on communication at various levels. Ask them what’s working and what’s not when it comes to interpersonal communication, team communication, executive communication, and organizational communication. Review the results and see which paint points show up.

Next, address them! While G.I. Joe was right—knowing is half the battle—the other half is doing something about it. It’s not enough to know your organization has a communication problem (spoiler alert: most do already). Armed with specifics on what you need to improve (meetings, emails, presentations, etc.), put together a team responsible for closing these gaps.

To do this, you could bring in an outside training or workshop. That said, there are scrappier solutions as well. For example, you could start with an internal book club. Less formal than a workshop, a team selects a book that addresses something that your org is struggling with. If data communication is a problem, your team could read Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. Like a book club, you can then get together and discuss the book’s concepts, adding ideas for application and implementation.

Make no mistake—it’s a lot of work. Communication skills are challenging to build and consistently reinforce in the workplace. As Tom Peters says, “Hard is soft and soft is hard.” Spreadsheets and forecasts are easy. Teamwork and communication are challenging.

But it’s work that’s worth our time. Let’s give it the attention it deserves. At the very least, let’s stop with the “soft skills” label. As these numbers show, these critical skills are anything but.