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Barriers to Effective Communication in the Workplace

September 5, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

Effective communication in the workplace is not always straightforward and barriers can easily get in the way. They cause messages to become distorted, subsequently leading to confusion, misunderstanding and even offense in some cases.

In this article we discuss barriers to workplace communication and how to overcome them.

Summary of barriers to communication

  • Physical barriers to non-verbal communication. Not being able to see the non-verbal cues, gestures, posture and general body language can make communication less effective.
  • Psychological barriers, for example someone with social anxiety and/or low self-esteem may be too distracted about how they are perceived when talking with a superior.
  • Emotional barriers. Some people may find it difficult to express their opinions on such as politics, religion, disabilities (mental and physical), sexuality and racism.
  • Jargon and acronyms. Companies often have their own jargon and acronyms which new employees may struggle with.
  • Lack of attention, interest and distractions to the person listening.
  • Differences in perception and viewpoint.
  • Physical disabilities such as hearing problems or speech difficulties.
  • Differences in language and unfamiliar accents.
  • Expectations and prejudices which may lead to stereotyping.
  • Cultural differences. The norms of social interaction vary greatly in different cultures, as do the way in which emotions are expressed.

Physical barriers

Physical barriers may prevent an individual from being able to interpret non-verbal cues. This is more common in communication methods relying on technology rather than face-to-face. Other physical barriers include:

  • Old or broken equipment or office phone systems used for communication
  • Uncomfortable temperatures
  • Background noise
  • Poor lighting
  • Communicating close to the time of your break/ lunch/ end of work hours
  • Large work areas or working in an area that is physically separated from colleagues
  • Closed doors
  • Large geographic distances between the sender and the receiver – communication is usually easier over shorter differences

Open office spaces are becoming popular as they provide employees with their own workspaces while also removing visible barriers between colleagues that can interfere with communication.

Psychological barriers

The psychological state of the speaker and listener can affect communication, for example:

  • Someone who suffers from social anxiety and/or low self-esteem may be too distracted about how they are perceived when talking with a superior. They may be worried about whether their manager will notice that they’re nervous, they may find it difficult to share their real thoughts etc. Afterwards this person may realise they can’t remember what the manager said because they were too distracted with their thoughts.
  • Anger can lead to saying things you regret and misinterpreting what others say.

Organisational structure barriers

Companies with unclear structures can make communication difficult. For example, they may have an inefficient information sharing and communication system, employees may not know what their role is in the communication system etc.

If a company has a complex structure with lots of management levels, information will be lost or distorted as it travels through each layer of the hierarchy.

Comlex organisational structure

Perceptual barriers

Differing opinions and views can reduce objectivity. You may enter a conversation assuming that the listener will not understand you or be uninterested in what you’re speaking about – this may consequently lead you to unintentionally harming your message, such as, using dismissive language or trying to be more humorous.

Or you may be the listener that doesn’t agree with the speaker’s beliefs so you choose not to listen properly or you look for faults in what they’re saying rather than trying to understand.

Attentional barriers

The listener may not pay enough attention to what is being said, perhaps they’re distracted, or uninterested or they think the speaker’s topic is irrelevant. This is very common in written communication, such as not reading the minutes from a team meeting. Communication is two-way; without paying attention and actively listening you will not understand the message.

Too much information

Providing someone with an overwhelming amount of details can confuse them and distract from your message. This is especially the case if the message has a lot of information that is new to the receiver.

Make sure you avoid information overload in meetings, where people can easily switch off.

Emotional barriers

Emotional reactions from either or both the speaker and listener can prevent effective communication. It’s difficult to put aside and not act on our emotions but it’s necessary. Try to work out what words, topics etc. can trigger your strong emotional reactions so you can create a plan for managing them.

A common emotion, in regard to communication, is fear. People often have the tendency to think that their opinions don’t matter in the workplace or that people will negatively judge them if they speak up. But this isn’t the case and it’s likely that others around you will also feel too afraid to say anything so they’ll respect you when you do speak up. What is valuable to you will be valuable to another person.

Cultural barriers

Cultural barriers can interfere with communication in a variety of ways:

  • The norms of communication vary between cultures, such as, personal space. It’s important to find common ground in these situations.
  • People may form assumptions based on stereotypes of the other person’s culture (cultural noise).
  • Work cultures differ between companies which means you have to adapt to your company’s culture to communicate effectively.

Assumptions, jumping to conclusions and premature evaluations

Forming a judgement before listening to everything the speaker has to say distorts your understanding. People often hear what they’re expecting which can lead to false conclusions.

Semantic and language barriers

There may be:

  • Language differences between the speaker and the listeners
  • Difficulties in understanding unfamiliar accents
  • Uses of: jargon, unfamiliar/regional expressions, specialist abbreviations, slang, technical terminology
Language barriers to communication

All of the above can exclude others and lead to misinterpretations or even offense so you need to speak in a direct and clear way to be understood.

Interpersonal barriers

Low self-esteem and prejudices can prevent you from forming relationships and connections with others due to your false perceptions. To overcome this you need to communicate more with others to increase your confidence and learn about your strengths and weaknesses.

Physiological barriers

Impaired eyesight, hearing problems, illness and pain can interfere with effective communication in the workplace.

Lack of similarities

To clarify your points it’s common to use examples and stories. However, their impact is reduced if: the other person does not find these relatable, they don’t have the same knowledge or the same experiences as you.

Also, information is filtered on a personal level using our experiences and beliefs. The more similar somebody is to you the more likely they will view things in the same way. So speakers with different socioeconomic backgrounds to their listeners must be careful to tailor their speech to their audience.


Being vague in your explanations and using too many generalisations or proverbs can lead to unclear communication and misinterpretation.


Communication may suffer from selective communication. The top of a company’s hierarchy may not share certain information to subordinates for fear of being judged as incompetent and they want to reinforce status differences.

Subordinates tend to share only information that would please their superiors and avoid sharing their mistakes and asking for further clarification on work.

Shortage of time

There may simply be a lack of time to convey information effectively.

Shortage of time barrier

Resistance to change

People may want to maintain the status quo so when, for example, a speaker tries to provide ideas involving a change, people may ignore or oppose it.

Credibility barriers

People are more likely to listen to a message if the sender has a credible and trustworthy reputation. Without this credibility, receivers may be suspicious, resistant or even hostile towards communication.

In summary

To communicate effectively in the workplace you need to be aware of these barriers and try to overcome them. Developing empathy can be particularly helpful for this, as it’s easy to get frustrated at the other person involved in the conversation, thus reducing the quality of the communication.

Empathy increases your patience which allows you to be thoughtful and come up with solutions in an effective and calm manner.