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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Miscommunication in the workplace is common. Who will accept the blame?

four adults sitting in front of a white brick wall pointing at one another

Have you ever encountered miscommunication at work?

According to “The State of Miscommunication,” which reported results of a survey of 1,344 employees regarding miscommunication in the workplace, nearly 81% of respondents said miscommunication occurs frequently, very frequently, or occasionally at work. Would you agree?

I often share these results when I speak about miscommunication to audiences of nutrition professionals. During a presentation this spring, I asked the dietitians at the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Annual Conference how often miscommunication occurs in the workplace in their experience. Were their responses similar to the report?

Nearly all the nutrition professionals reported that miscommunication occurs frequently, very frequently, or occasionally in the workplace, with 98% giving one of those answers. Is this higher response due to honesty, more miscommunication where nutrition professionals work, or being primed to think about miscommunication during a presentation about this topic? Who knows. What we DO know is miscommunication is very common at work.

Who’s to blame? Who is responsible for miscommunication?

According to the report, 50% of employees said they are never, almost never, or rarely the one responsible for the miscommunication. Hmmm, if it’s so common, who is to blame? Who will be held accountable?

I asked this same question to the nutrition professionals. Do you think they were more likely to accept responsibility?

If you said yes, you are correct. They were much more willing. Only 12% said they were rarely or never responsible for miscommunication in the workplace. 67% said they were occasionally responsible and 21% said they were frequently or very frequently responsible.

If miscommunication is going to be conquered, we need to be accountable for our part in it.

Why don’t people accept responsibility for miscommunication?

We seek to defend ourselves against blame and have a self-serving bias according to Aaron Brown, Senior Insights Analyst, as reported in The State of Miscommunication:

“People are inclined to believe “it’s not me, it’s you” because of self-serving bias and defensive attribution. The self-serving bias is a tendency for people to distort their perceptions to maintain or potentially enhance their self-worth. People often want to have a favorable view of themselves, so distancing themselves from a problem — such as miscommunication at work — allows them to reason that they’re not to blame: other people are. Relatedly, defensive attribution is the self-serving bias in action. In other words, if a problem emerges, then blame can be attributed to other sources (e.g., coworkers, another position level) so as to defend one’s sense of self-worth.”

Why were the dietitians more willing to accept blame? Again, it could be a greater degree of honesty, or that they are more responsible for miscommunication, or that participating in a presentation about miscommunication prompts a willingness to let go of our natural defenses and self-serving biases.

Where does most miscommunication occur – in person or via technology?

One of the challenges surrounding communication in the workplace is how much of our communication occurs digitally – via email, text, videoconferencing, etc. For this reason, the survey also asked in which setting miscommunication occurs most.

3 images depicting tech-assisted communication, in-person communication, and both
From The State of Miscommunication, Quantum Workplace

As illustrated, tech-assisted communication is considered more susceptible to miscommunication than in-person, however, almost as many respondents felt both were equally responsible.

When I asked this question to the nutrition professionals, 41% said tech-assisted, only 3% said in-person, and 56% said both equally. What do you think?

Are YOU willing to accept responsibility for miscommunication?

It bears repeating… if miscommunication is going to be conquered, we need to be accountable for our part in it. Check your messages for clarity and correctness, check your audience for understanding, and when miscommunication occurs, accept responsibility and make it right.

“Creating a culture of integrity and accountability not only improves effectiveness, it also generates a respectful, enjoyable, and life-giving setting in which to work.” ~ Tom Hanson

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