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When Miscommunication Leads to Work Issues

Last updated on 27th January 2023

With more and more of us working remotely, our dependency on messaging systems and online communication is higher than ever. The wonders of online communication are seemingly endless, but what are the risks? Here we take a look at the ways in which miscommunication in messages can lead to conflict, and even violence, in the workplace.

How are messages miscommunicated?

When working remotely, a variety of different forms of communication can be used. Although video conferencing is possible, other forms of communication will usually rely on written information. With this text-based communication, the usual non-verbal forms of communication that we use are lost completely.

A reliance on text and a lack of other forms of communication can often lead to miscommunication. Things that will often be implied in verbal communication can be almost impossible to convey in text alone. When emails are sent or notes are left on workflow software, the tone of what is said is down to the reader’s interpretation. Miscommunication is then much more common than when a face-to-face discussion has occurred.

We crunched the numbers for workplace conflict and violence and conducted our own survey to see how often this miscommunication happens and how often it can lead to workplace conflict and violence.

Email and text communication

What we found

We asked 501 people if they had ever misinterpreted messages through email or any of the major collaboration software that are on the market. Here is what we found.

Over 75% of people have misinterpreted an email or instant message at some point

A massive 76.2% of those surveyed said they have misinterpreted an email or instant message while at work. This means more than three quarters of people will experience the issue of misinterpretation at some point when they communicate through non-verbal channels.

When we split the data down by gender, we found that women were slightly more likely to have misinterpreted a written message than men (77.4% compared to 74.9%). Having discussed this in the office we decided that this may be because the women were just being more truthful!

People tend to agree that it is easier to misinterpret written messages instead of those given face-to-face

We asked everyone if they thought that it was easier to misinterpret messages through email or instant messages than it was for messages given face to face. The majority agreed that it is more likely to result in miscommunication.

Of those asked, just 2.4% strongly disagreed with this statement and thought it was much easier to misinterpret face-to-face messages. Next up we found 8.2% disagreed and 19.6% neither agreed nor disagreed. Those who agreed with the statement were in the majority, with 40.9% thinking this was the case. Leaving us with 28.9% who strongly agreed that it is much easier to misinterpret messages via written channels.

This is interesting as it tells us that people do actually realise that they can misinterpret information sent through emails and messaging. Therefore, we know this is a risk when communicating through email and other forms of writing.

Younger generations are more likely to misinterpret

Of those that we surveyed, we found that people who were younger were more likely to misinterpret messages.

In the 18–24 age category, 82.6% said that they had misinterpreted a message through email or instant messaging. The highest proportion came in the 25–34 category with a huge 86.3% saying they have made this mistake. Next, the 35–44 age group were at 76.4%, the 45–54 group at 79.1% and the 55–64 group at 65.8%. The oldest category of 65 and over were the least likely to have ever misinterpreted written communication, with just 64.1% saying they have done this.

This tells us that older people are more likely to understand information without verbal cues. This could be due to the fact that young generations are more likely to use technology at work and have a heavier reliance on emails and instant messaging.

Misinterpreting messages will lead to disagreements in teams

Last up, we checked the numbers for misinterpretations in messaging that lead to disagreements. This is a key factor as we can see how misjudging a message will actually impact on a team and lead to disagreements and conflict.

As you would assume, high numbers of misinterpreted messages lead to disagreements, with the 25–34 age group being the highest likely to disagree when wires are crossed. Again, the older generations tend to be better at realising that miscommunication can happen and not disagreeing with colleagues.

This is further evidence to show that older people are the least likely to disagree with their peers as the data suggests they are better at either understanding information or spotting when data can be misconstrued.

Data used for this post

Have you ever misinterpreted an email or instant message (i.e. Whatsapp, Slack etc.)?
Those that said Yes 382 76.2%
Those that said No 119 23.8%
Total people asked 501
Do you believe it’s easier to misinterpret an email or instant message over face to face communication?
Strongly disagree 12 2.4%
Disagree 41 8.2%
Neither disagree nor agree 98 19.6%
Agree 205 40.9%
Strongly agree 145 28.9%
Total People asked 501
Have you ever had an argument or disagreement with someone due to a misinterpreted email or instant message?
Those that said Yes 239 62.6%
Those that said No 143 37.4%
Total people asked 382
Have you ever had an argument or disagreement with someone due to a misinterpreted email or instant message?
Age 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Yes 73.7% 75.2% 55.7% 70.8% 48.1% 46.3%
No 26.3% 24.8% 44.3% 29.2% 51.9% 53.7%
Total people asked 19 101 97 72 52 41
Have you ever misinterpreted an email or instant message (i.e. Whatsapp, Slack etc.)?
Age 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Yes 82.6% 86.3% 76.4% 79.1% 65.8% 64.1%
No 17.4% 13.7% 23.6% 20.9% 34.2% 35.9%
Total people asked 23 117 127 91 79 64
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About the author

David Lee

David has worked with the CPD Online College from the start. He works on the website by making sure our courses are easy to use and packed full of useful information. Outside of work he enjoys time with friends and family, walking his dog Molly and eating Nutella by the jar full. And Jaffa Cakes. And basically anything else he can get his hands on.

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