How Poor Communication is Hurting Your Startup (And What You Can Do About It)

By Eric Samson

As a small business owner, I'm often asked my thoughts on the top problems other small businesses and startups often run into. Suffice it to say, there are plenty.

From back-office issues to underperforming salespeople to glitchy technology, the gamut of things that can hurt a business is as long as it is wide. But we can gather all of these little issues and huddle them under one problematic umbrella to which they’re all related and call it “communication.” Think of communication as the grease that keeps all of your little departmental cogs moving in unison. Without it, your business jams to a halt. Keep communication and interaction fluid, and things will sail along smoothly.

Below, I look at just how poor communication is negatively affecting your business and identify some ways you can fix it before it’s too late.

Mind the Gap

In the old days, there were generally three ways a workplace communicated: face-to-face, over the telephone, or via snail mail. Nowadays, for better or for worse, we have a myriad of ways to disseminate information. In addition to the former methods, we have a whole slew of others. So while the partners might be mulling over the numbers via email, your IT people are sending things up the flagpole with Slack and your salespeople exclusively interact via GoToMeeting or Skype.

This is fine for your departments internally and, in many ways, could be preferable. You got into the startup game so you could make your own rules, so why not let each department define their method of communication?

That’s all well and good, but what happens when a partner needs to get something to IT but IT checks their email irregularly? Or if sales needs to clear a discount with the top brass and no one’s answering their calls? This is what’s known as a communication gap.

Mark A. McKenney, media consultant and Principal of McKenney Spa & Wellness Consulting, has personal experience with the communication gap. I've seen him touch on the topic in the context of his media work and startup experience through social media: "I believe in actual real time, face-to-face meetings with a well-planned agenda and obtainable goals with metrics; short and concise. Unfortunately, I still work with a CEO who email manages everything and avoids making decisions, which leads to confusion and a sense of stagnancy. I want to create change, get things done and move forward, not go around in email circles just wasting time."

So, how does a business fix the communication gap?

Studies have shown that it’s the top-level executives who are charged with keeping their employees engaged, motivated and communicating well. Here are some suggestions for closing the communication gap:

  • Have weekly all-team meetings (face-to-face if possible)
  • Coordinate monthly employee surveys
  • Integrate email into apps like Google Chat and Slack to help consolidate lines of communication

In my company, I hold two-to-three full-team meetings a week to ensure everyone is on the same page and sharing the same vision. Not only do we discuss projects and client needs, but I also like to use these meetings to gauge overall morale and employee happiness. It's easy to overlook when employees lose sight of overarching goals and objectives. Face-to-face time is essential to keep a team connected and unified.

Communication Fatigue

The flipside of all of these new methods of communication is that many employees are beginning to experience the signs of communication fatigue. With our super-connected society, we are constantly inundated with tweets, likes, pings, dings and pokes leading to total disengagement when we’ve had enough. This can be especially problematic to your employees when they’re expected to check their email after hours. Communication fatigue can quickly lead to burnout and burnout leads to turnover.

It’s been proven that checking work email less frequently leads to less stress, which ultimately leads to a happier workplace. France has even gone so far as to giving workers the “right to disconnect” from their work emails after 6 p.m. without fear of reprisal.

I get it — the startup world is tough and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year from launch until the foreseeable future, and the reality is that you might have to call on your employees at a moment's notice. But give them some wiggle room: Allow lower-level employees the right to disconnect after certain hours, make Saturday or Sunday a designated, non-negotiable work-free day, or figure out a way to allow them to disconnect at work. Some companies have taken to incorporating meditation into a workday. It’s been shown to increase employee mindfulness and creativity while lowering stress levels.

Consider the Customer

Like anything in business, poor communication has a trickle-down effect. Your startup’s communication problems will no doubt begin to affect your customers just as much as it affects your employees. If communication miscues are causing low morale, your employees will give poor customer service, leading to lower customer engagement and alienation.

While you’re busy looking at the numbers and juggling all the other aspects of running your startup, communication often has a way of sliding to the backburner But it’s a fact that poor communication will begin to erode the foundation of your business and eventually cause it to collapse. The good thing is, if you catch it early, fixing poor communication can be easy: Tackle it right from the start, and it’ll help your business succeed for as long as you’ll sustain it.

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Eric Samson is the founder of Group8A, a boutique digital marketing agency.

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