3 Communication Mistakes Screwing Up Teamwork

“Oh, she didn’t copy me on purpose.” “He’s withholding information to make my life harder.” “Making us guess what he’s thinking is just a big power play.” “Why would she put something that important in email?” “What’s that supposed to mean anyway?” “Why did she copy my boss?”

Some teams spend more time second-guessing the intent behind poor communication than working to improve it.

3 Communication Mistakes Screwing Up Teamwork


“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
-George Bernard Shaw

1. Assuming mal-intent

Sure people play games… but not most of us, most of the time.  Don’t let an innocent oversight like being left off an email or out of a meeting degrade trust.

I’ll never forget the time a peer executive left me off a meeting invite. Our departments had some competing priorities, and I was sure it was intentional. I stewed on it for weeks. Finally after I’d let the fuel from my fabricated fable of his intentions combust into full-on stupidity, I blew a gasket when he asked me to move one of my meetings around so he could attend. As the drama unravelled, it became obvious that the original oversight was just that, an oversight.

We cleared the air and it never happened again. I could have saved both of us a lot of angst by just picking up the phone and asking to be included.

2. Hiding behind email

Email is fast and easy, but rarely effective for important communication. Never assume “they got the memo,” and your work is done. Don’t use email as a way to communicate bad news, or as a way to escalate over a peer’s head by copying their boss.

The best communication happens five times, five different ways. Email’s a great supporting tool, but rarely plays well as the lead medium.

3. Failure to write down decisions

I’ve seen great teams with excellent communication skills break down because they miss this simple step. High-trust teams will often raise a lot of creative ideas, debate pros and cons, and then challenge the decisions some more. All healthy. Once the debate has concluded be sure to summarize the final decisions, along with next steps and timeline.

With all that discussion, I often find team members each leave with their own memory of what was decided, which may or may not match the recall of other team members.

Writing down and reading back key decisions and next steps is an important way to keep the team all moving in the same direction.

Communicating well builds the most important ingredient of any successful team–trust. Take the time to establish clear expectations around how your team is communicating, and to discuss where it’s working best and how it’s breaking down.

Posted in Career & Learning, Communication and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. oh, this is priceless Karin. Have you noticed that people read a tone of voice into email? Often people will project an emotion that may or may not be there. Email is effective for some, but not most communication. I have a rule, one email exchange, if it requires more, I get out of my chair and go and talk to my co-worker.

    • Bill, Awesome rule! I’m amazed at how many people will go back and forth when they could just walk over or pick up the phone.

  2. Hiding behind email creates excuses where there should be accountability. “I sent it, didn’t you see it?” Most people are buried under an avalanche of email daily… Great reminder that email is not the one an only way to get your message across when it really matters.

    • Alli, I so agree…. it’s a way to quickly get it off your desk, but there’s not guarantee your message will be noticed. If it’s that important, why wouldn’t we choose the best medium. Thanks!

  3. I had to laugh at the second guessing lines because I have certainly been there with co-workers.

    Communication is the oil that keeps a team running and without clear, direct and honest words it can fall apart so easily. As you point out, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions before verifying what was meant in a communication. Just today I was connecting with a friend who told me her name was left off an email but she knew not to overreact. She simply asked her boss what was communicated and he apologized for leaving her out. I think we are all so busy just doing our jobs sometimes that we overlook some of the communication details.

    Thanks Karin for sharing these three important mistakes!

    • Terri, Thanks so much. Sounds like your friend was a lot smarter than me 😉

  4. I love this quote, Karin: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

    They say that there are 3 things you need to know about having a successful marriage: 1) Communicate. 2) Communicate, 3) Communicate.

    And the same is true for any successful relationship. Just a great article, and an important reminder of how we should never assume we’ve clearly gotten our message across!

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