Determining What Causes Communication Failure


Here are some of the more common factors in communication breakdowns.

Code Noise

Code noise occurs when the meaning of a message to the sender differs from its meaning to the recipient. Too often, this may be because the sender has used «jargon,» pretentious terminology or language specific to a particular profession or group. As an example of pretentious terminology, The Wall Street Journal reported on a federal tax case in which a fire alarm was described as a «combustion enunciator,» a door as a «removable partition,» a manhole as «equipment access,» and windows as «decorative fixtures.»» Management in Action 1 provides a fascinating glimpse of the ways that some companies consciously use jargon.


Distraction, or psychological noise, occurs when a recipient does not understand the sender’s message because he or she is simply thinking about something else. For instance, the recipient may be distracted by financial worries or upcoming deadlines. Often, of course, recipients don’t understand senders’ messages because they are thinking about their own replies rather than concentrating on the message to which they are going to reply. Thus, effective listening is an important communication skill.


Misrepresentation may also cause the failure of communication and may take various forms. Deliberate lies are an extreme example. Quite frankly, people do at times lie on their resumes (sometimes called padding), in their advertising messages (sometimes called puffery), and in their campaign promises (sometimes called politics). More often, information may be subtly distorted to the sender’s benefit. A memo that focuses on sales increases but downplays drops in profit, an annual report that tries to hide changes in accounting format, and a brochure from a drug manufacturer that ignores hazardous side effects would be examples of this kind of misrepresentation.


Indeed, some forms of misrepresentation are so common that examples to the contrary are newsworthy. For instance, it is almost «common practice» for company annual reports to present the year’s events in a favorable light. The «Dear Stockholder» letter in the 1988 annual report of poultry producer Holly Farms Corp. broke that mold. It began, «You already know the Bad News about our past fiscal year. We were wrong about chickens, The chicken market did not recover from salmonella publicity and we entered a sharp chicken depression. We lost money in chickens-our worst year in history And the poor performance was mostly our fault.»

Information Retention 

Information is a valuable resource. Those who control it are in positions of power. Some employees may retain specific sorts of information, such as a formula or a filing system, and thereby make themselves more necessary. Others are in positions that give them the ability to channel-or not channel-information to various individuals inside and outside the organization. Still others are in positions in which they process information, sending only some of it along. Each of these sorts of individuals has the potential to create barriers to proper communication.


Perceptual Factors

Most perceptual errors are directly relevant to communication. Stereotyping, for example, may cause us to ignore or distort the messages of people we have clasisfied in certain ways. A manager may, for instance, feel that union representatives are not trustworthy. As a result, the manager may misinterpret conciliatory gestures from the union. Selective perception may cause us to ignore communication that conflicts with our beliefs and expectations. Halo error may lead us to bias our evaluation of a message because of some un related characteristic of the message sender such as physical appearance. Pro jection may lead us to infer information in a message we receive based upon our own feelings. If we are angry, for instance, we may see anger in the message.


Other Factors

Several other things can contribute to communication failure. Time pressures and communication overload can each cause us to ignore messages. They may also cause us to focus on information that helps us make a choice quickly. For instance, a harried employment interviewer may look for reasons to reject many of the job candidates she is considering. Noise in the channel, such as static, can distort messages, especially when channels are long or not well shielded from outside influences. Short circuiting, in which a message fails to reach an intended recipient because of an error, can cause confusion, resentment, and mistakes.

Markus Taylor