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Barriers to Workplace Communication

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There are a number of ways that people go wrong when communicating. Unfortunately, barriers to workplace communication can lead to co-worker alienation, a failure to make a good impression, arguments and misunderstandings. Both physiological and psychological barriers may prevent effective communication, as do perceptual, language and physical barriers.

Perceptual Communication Barriers

Employees grow accustomed to perceiving things in particular ways, making it difficult to recognize new meanings. For example, a manager who prefers hiring Ivy League graduates may overlook the exceptional contributions that could be made by a community college graduate. Differing life experiences, interests and values may prevent two employees from perceiving an event the same way. Due to invalid perceptions, an employee may recommend incorrect solutions. Sandra Cleary suggests in her book “Communication: A Hands-On Approach” that education and intelligence affect our perceptions, as do an individual's physiological, safety and social needs.

Language Barriers

Cleary notes that words have different meanings for different people, which complicates communication. An attorney may hear the word "trust" and think of real property held by one party for another, while a security engineer may relate "trust" to the integrity of a computer system. Language barriers may also result from the use of jargon such as “value-add” and “Web 2.0” or insensitive and discriminatory language. Incorrect pronunciation, complex sentences, faulty grammar and spelling may also confuse listeners.

Physical Barriers

Physical communication barriers are environmental elements that affect an employee's ability to acquire or convey information. Loud talking and construction noises affect hearing. In addition, a speaker's appearance and mannerisms can affect his ability to convey his message to an audience. Equally important are the listeners' seating arrangements and their physical comfort level, since sitting in the back row of a large auditorium may prevent a listener from hearing the full presentation.

Physiological Barriers

Physiological barriers are characteristics of the speaker or listener that interfere with the transmission or reception of information. For example, an allergy may make it difficult to be attentive to a conversation or sleepiness may affect an employee's concentration. Physical pain and depression also negatively affect hearing and interpretation of a message. Other issues, such as hunger, emotional distress and fatigue may also affect communication.

Psychological Barriers

Boredom and a negative attitude also influence an employee's receptiveness to a message. If an employee attends an “all-hands” meeting regarding a company's bankruptcy, his fear or anger may cause him to misinterpret the speaker's message. Communication can also shut down due to a listener's embarrassment regarding the speaker's subject matter. A salesperson may be inattentive due to his failure to meet his sales quota. Other meeting attendees may also be concentrating on work deadlines and ongoing tasks rather than listening to speakers’ comments. All of these situations result in communications barriers in the workplace that can be difficult to overcome.


Billie Nordmeyer works as a consultant advising small businesses and Fortune 500 companies on performance improvement initiatives, as well as SAP software selection and implementation. During her career, she has published business and technology-based articles and texts. Nordmeyer holds a Bachelor of Science in accounting, a Master of Arts in international management and a Master of Business Administration in finance.

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