4 Damaging Effects of Office Miscommunication (And How Widespread It Is)

Communicating with colleagues, customers, and clients is a significant part of everyone’s career, and our proficiency at doing it can really impact how quickly we progress.

Given how regularly we rely on communication at work, it’s not often considered a skill, like problem-solving or organization, that can be reviewed and improved upon. The result is that miscommunications occur on a level that many will find surprising.

Recent research has shined a light on where it’s at it’s most prevalent, finding that 56% of US workers have miscommunicated in the office (defined here as unintentionally sending a communication to the wrong person at work).

By recognizing the pitfalls of miscommunication, you can take the first step towards making a real improvement in your communication skills – helping both you and your colleagues work better together.

4 pitfalls of office miscommunication

1. Lack of understanding

First and foremost, miscommunication can lead directly to misleading instructions. If you’re handing someone a specific task or communicating a wider strategy, a miscommunication can confuse employees and cause them to undertake the wrong work.

When instructions aren’t clear employee mistakes can increase, poor decisions are made and the quality of work decreases.

Ultimately, this can lead to a litany of knock-on effects, unmet expectations and can seriously impact the progress of ongoing projects.

2. Unwarranted stress

A lack of clarity is a tough situation for employees to find themselves in. Without sufficient direction, anxiety and stress can unnecessarily increase.

In these scenarios, employees can often find themselves stressed about things that are entirely irrelevant, spending their time worrying about concerns that been borne out of poor communication.

Good communication reverses these issues, creating a sense of stability and allowing employees to prioritize their work.

3. Decrease in motivation

What the above two points add up to is a decrease in your staff’s motivation. Morale is a key facet linked to the performance of your team, and poor communication can lead to a decrease in it.

Put it this way: if you’re unclear on how to complete a task, either through poor direction or a lack of support from superiors, you’ll begin to feel like you simply aren’t capable of doing the task at hand.

This prospect is damaging to employee self-esteem and, in turn, their proficiency at doing their job.

4. Drop in productivity

Ultimately what all this adds up to is a drop in your team’s productivity levels. Not only does this harm your team’s development, it can also harm the company’s bottom line.

The estimated cost of poor communication is $26,041 per employee each year – according to the Holmes report in 2011.

Couple this with the regularity that technological miscommunication occurs, as the recent research cited above (and detailed below), has unearthed, and you can see why every team needs to make improving communication a priority.

How widespread miscommunication is in the office

Well over half of US workers have committed a miscommunication in the workplace

56% of the 1,500 US workers surveyed said they had committed a workplace miscommunication of some form.

More than a third have miscommunicated via email

The study went on to investigate the platforms on which miscommunication most commonly occurs.

Email, probably the most heavily used method of office communication, was the biggest offender. 34% of people said they’d unintentionally sent one to the wrong person at work.

It also happens across lots of other work-related platforms

Many of the most significant communication platforms have seen some level of miscommunication. As many as 22% of respondents said they’d sent an instant message (such as a WhatsApp) or a text to the wrong colleague.

Less common are miscommunications via chat services like Skype or voicemails sent to the wrong person’s phone – both had been done by 12% of US workers.

Almost a quarter have miscommunicated confidential information

When asked what kind of content was contained within the miscommunication, confidential information was placed highest on the list at with 23%. This was split between confidential personal (13%) and business information (10%).

17% have miscommunicated insulting comments

Insulting comments ranked just behind confidential information when it came to the communication’s content, with 17% of US workers stating they’d unintentionally sent some less than complimentary words to the wrong person.

10% of these were comments made about a colleague other than the intended recipient. The other 7% had accidentally sent the insulting comments to the exact person they were written about.

Men are much more regular offenders than women

In every single measurable way, men were found to commit workplace miscommunication more regularly than women. As many as 70% have miscommunicated in some way at work, compared to just 49% of women.

The story is the same when it comes to communicative methods. 45% of men have sent an email to the wrong person, 14 percentage points higher than women. 32% have done the same with an instant message or text, and 20% via a voicemail (the stats were 19% and 9% respectively for women).  

Not only do men also find themselves sending insulting comments about colleagues to the wrong people (26% as opposed to 15% of women), but they often go even further. One in ten males admitted to miscommunicating sexual content (be it written or other media such as videos or photos) – double that of women.

How miscommunication can damage employees and businesses

Aside from the financial and morale-related issues that can arise from miscommunication, it can also lead to downright embarrassing situations for employees, clients, and businesses.

The research conducted above also sourced a number of the most unusual, real-world examples of miscommunication.

A horrible boss once emailed asking me to do something. I intended to forward it to a friend with the message “Go [email protected]!? Yourself?.”

I replied to my boss instead.

4 Damaging Effects of Office Miscommunication (And How Widespread It Is)

My schedule for work had me on call on a Wednesday. My managers didn’t need me, so Jeremy, one of our managers, texted me to tell me that I wouldn’t need to come in.

I was glad, so I texted back “HOORAY”…except my phone autocorrected it to “HORNY”

4 Damaging Effects of Office Miscommunication (And How Widespread It Is)

Trying to be part of the gang at work, I thought I would send an amusing meme round to six of my colleagues.

It was a little NSFW, featuring a creepy sloth with the words “whip it out Wednesday” written across the bottom.

I accidentally included a client in the email.

4 Damaging Effects of Office Miscommunication (And How Widespread It Is)

These may be extreme examples that are unlikely to occur in your office, but the perils can be significant were it to arise. Not only can it simply be embarrassing for the employee involved, it could also damage their career – depending on the severity of the miscommunication.

From a business perspective, if clients or customers are involved, it could lead to irreversible damage to your reputation and a loss of revenue.

Written By
Jason O’Brien is COO of TollFreeForwarding.com, providing U.S. Toll Free numbers to 25,000 customers spanning 125 countries worldwide. After working in manufacturing, distribution and aerospace, Jason joined Tollfreeforwarding in 2007, helping fuel the company's growth by building the operational infrastructure for sales, customer service, billing and technical support.