“We have a communication problem.” How many times have you heard that as an explanation for project failures, disgruntled employees, or a lack of teamwork in organizations? Aside from the dramatic cases, such as a nurse not telling a doctor that he is about to operate on the wrong leg or a co-pilot not telling the pilot that another plane is on the same landing approach, we rarely know what is meant by “communication problem.” Several colleagues and I decided to find out. Leslie Stambaugh, Jim Stilwell, and I asked 15 organization leaders about the communication challenges they face in their organizations. An analysis of their responses identified nine major categories:

1. Not All Employees Being Kept Informed

The assumption is that the usual modes of communication will send important information to everyone who needs to know and that everyone will receive this information. However, in many organizations, the information doesn’t reach people who are not using those methods of communication on a regular basis (e.g., email that isn’t read by front-line workers).

2. Employees Not Receiving Consistent Messages from Management

Different supervisors are sending different, sometimes conflicting, messages about priorities. This causes confusion and distrust among employees.

3. Employees Not Receiving Timely Messages

Information is not getting to employees when and where they need it. Without vital information at the right time and in the right place, the decision-making process slows and projects are not completed on time or in the best way.

4. The Right Information is Not Being Sent to the Right People

Critical information (e.g., market data) is not being shared among key stakeholders. Top management is not engaging employees who have most of the customer contact in the important decisions of the organization. Employees are not getting important information to management.

5. Expectations are Not Clear

Top leaders do not discuss expectations with mid-level managers. Therefore, they do not have the same expectations nor do they agree on how to reach strategic goals. Because of this, employees do not have clear goals and benchmarks to guide their progress.

6. Plan for the Future is Not Known

Leaders do not discuss their vision for the future of the organization with employees. There is no sense of a shared direction toward which everyone is striving. This does not inspire employees to do their best work.

7. Functional Areas Not Collaborating

Departments/units do not share the information that could help all departments/units achieve common goals. They are competitive rather than collaborative. This limits the capability of the organization as a whole.

8. Employees Not Open with Each Other

Employees do not share information with each other. They do not trust each other. This compromises the productivity of teams, departments/units, and the organization.

9. Communication Hampered by Distance Between Units

Departments/units that are in different locations do not communicate as much and as often as those in close proximity. The distance makes face-to-face meetings harder to arrange and collaboration takes more time.

Even in this age of email, cell phones, text messaging, and Web conferencing, critical communication among leaders, between management and employees, and between departments/units, still does not happen as much and as often as needed.