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When People Complain About "Communications"

This Advisor column was originally published in February 2005.

"Communications are bad around here."
"You know what our problem is? Lack of communication."
"If we would just learn to communicate, we could build some trust."

We often hear quotes like the ones above. Sound familiar?

In our experience, the reason that "communications" is such a tough topic to tackle is that people mean different things when they use the term. When you as a manager learn to understand what your staff truly means by "communications problems," you can develop strategies to deal with the underlying issues.

When people complain about "poor communications," they usually mean one of the following things:

  • I am not getting timely, accurate information I need to do my job.
  • I am not being treated as a valued and appreciated member of the team.
  • I am not being listened to. Management gives us decisions but doesn't consider our input.

As you can see, each of these statements requires a very different response.

How do you know which statement employees are actually making? Pretend to be a therapist. When an employee says that "Communications are bad," just say, "Tell me more about what you mean." You will usually get an earful.

And, if the earful is unclear, ask targeted questions:

  • Is it that you don't get the information you need to do your job?
  • Are you talking about problems with interpersonal relationships on the job?
  • Do you think that management listens to and considers your input in decision making?

"I'm not getting the information..."

What's it About?

This statement is about information flow. If this is the kind of "communications gap" that your employee is describing, she is telling you that she is not hearing what she considers "important news." Remember what it feels like to be "out of the loop"? It can have a significant impact on your level of confidence in your own competence as well as management's trustworthiness.

If an employee doesn't have accurate and timely information about a policy change, for example, he may be giving incorrect information to a citizen who comes in for help. Even after the employee's mistake is fixed, the employee walks away from the encounter a little less confident about whether he knows what he is doing and the citizen has one more reason to complain about "government."

And when an employee finds out about a major city/county issue in the morning headlines, she starts to wonder what else is being kept from her.

Addressing Information Flow Issues

Find multiple ways to share information. For example, you may have explained the policy change in an e-mail. However, if your staff got 72 e-mails that day, yours may have been overlooked. Review the policy change at meetings; put it in the staff newsletter.

Also, beware of the "management osmosis" syndrome, that sense that if you learned about it in the weekly management briefing, everyone else must know it, too! Take time at the end of management meetings to ask: What are the key messages we need to carry to staff from this meeting? How will we do it?

"I'm not valued and appreciated..."

What's it About?

Here employees are talking either about cold or abusive communication in the work place or simple lack of recognition for their work. This sense of being devalued may come from co-workers as well as managers. Perhaps, in trying to continue good service to your citizens, everyone is spending less time being human in the work place. Maybe stress levels are so high that people give short shrift to one another or end up in conflict. And maybe no one feels as if they have the time to celebrate and recognize good work.

Addressing Feelings of Value and Appreciation

Start by listening to what goes on in your team's day-to-day communications. They may need to learn how to respect one another's communications style. Or it might be time for a talk about work place norms—the behaviors we all need to use in working with one another. Understanding that co-workers' or managers' intention may not be to disrespect others is the beginning of understanding how to communicate in ways that show value, appreciation and respect.

This is a time where training or facilitation could come in handy, particularly if poor communications is causing conflict among staff members.

Another area to examine is how and when you recognize staff for good work—and whether you are recognizing them in ways that they find of value. Some people like a hand written note, others a "Good job!," still others would love the opportunity to work on a challenging project as recognition for their efforts. Learning how to recognize staff in effective ways does much to increase feelings of worth and solve this particular "communications" problem.

"I'm not being listened to..."

This statement is about two-way communications and is often the result of confusion about staff's role in decision making.

Sometimes managers truly do not listen to their staff's opinions. More often, however, managers fall into one of three communications traps:

  1. They don't clarify in their own minds what kind of decision making mode is appropriate to a given issue. Should the manager be making a unilateral decision (i.e, without seeking input)? Should s/he make a consultative decision (seeking input but retaining the final decision responsibility)? Should it be a joint decision, where both manager and staff need to be in agreement? Or should the decision be delegated to staff?
  2. They don't communicate the decision making mode to staff, leaving staff feeling frustrated and "unheard" because things did not turn out as they'd expected. So, for example, you may be simply seeking input from staff and some members see the decision as a joint decision (one with which they should agree). When your final decision does not meet staff expectations, there is disappointment and some grousing about—you guessed it—"poor communications."
  3. They don't get back to staff to explain how their input was used in the decision making process. Staff members then think that their ideas went into the Black Hole.

Addressing Two-Way Communication Issues

Consider what you want from your staff in each situation. Is this a decision that, really, you should make alone? If so, don't spend time asking for input that you don't plan on using. Instead, make sure you explain not only your decision but why you made the decision you did.

If you are making a consultative decision, clarify to your staff that you will be making the final decision but want to hear their ideas. Reserve joint decision making for the most critical issues, ones where you need a high degree of consent for success. And give staff solid guidelines for decisions that you delegate.


  • Information flows in multiple forums
  • Staff and managers speak with each other clearly and respectfully
  • People are recognized for good work in ways that are meaningful to them
  • Managers communicate clearly about decision making and staff members understand their roles and the value of their input...

...You're not going to hear much about communications in your work place. Because it is happening seamlessly.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Dee Endleman