Communication Barriers and Breakdowns (Noise) - Principles of Management

As we noted earlier, communication is often distorted by noise. Despite the best intentions of sender and receiver to communicate, several barriers can inhibit the effective exchange of information. As author George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Pervasive communication barriers that cause noise are perceptions, filtering, language, information overload, cultural differences, and gender differences.

The amount of noise in a communication system increases if the communicator does not match the medium to the message. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney’s decision to use lean media to communicate about his hunting accident injected noise into the communication system.


Perception is the process of attending to, interpreting, and organizing information. Perceptions influence what information we notice, how we interpret that information, and how we organize it. Our perceptions are themselves shaped by our mental models of how the world works. These models are the product of our psychology and our experiences. They influence what we attend to, what we ignore, how we interpret incoming information, and how we organizeit.

If we didn’t have mental models to guide our perceptions, we would drown in the sea of information that is constantly bombarding us. But although mental models are generally beneficial, their presence can also cause problems. We are all prone to selective perception — the tendency to notice and attend to information that is consistent with our values, beliefs, and expectations while ignoring or screening out information that is inconsistent with these. We already encountered this phenomenon when we discussed decision-making biases.

There we referred to the prior hypothesis bias, which asserts that decision makers attend to information that is consistent with strongly held prior beliefs while ignoring or downplaying disconfirming evidence. The prior hypothesis bias is the result of selective perception. Within the context of communication, selective perception implies that we attend to only a portion of the information within a communication system— most notably information that is consistent with our prior values, beliefs, and expectations.

Another problem concerns stereotyping : the process of assigning traits to people based on their membership in a social category. Stereotypes influence how we interpret incoming information. We stereotype people based on factors such as their age, gender, race, accent, looks, and the like. Stereotyping can lead to poor judgments. For example, there is growing evidence that white males receive better health care from doctors than black males and that this is reflected in a higher incidence of untreated heart disease among black males.

This situation occurs because doctors stereotype their patients based on race, tend to discount the information they receive from black males in the clinic, make inappropriate assumptions about lifestyles that influence the treatment options given, and pay closer attention to the information they receive from white males.

Another example of stereotyping is that based on looks. There is evidence that attractive people command an income premium in the labor market of 5–10 percent over the incomes of average-looking people; the incomes of unattractive people are 5–10 percent below average.

Called the beauty premium, the higher earnings of attractive people have been attributed to their ability to elicit more favorable perceptions from others due to their looks, and seem unrelated to their actual abilities. The existence of this stereotype implies that we probably pay more attention to communication from good-looking people and tend to interpret it favorably. In other words, looks are a perceptual source of noise in the communication process.

A third perceptual problem is the attribution process —deciding whether an observed event is caused primarily by external or internal factors. Internal factors originate within a person and concern an individual’s ability or motivation. External factors originate from the environment and concern things such as availability of resources, the impact of other people, and luck.

For an example of how this process works, consider an employee who does not perform well. An internal attribution arises when we believe that the poor performance is due to a lack of ability or motivation. An external attribution would occur if we believed that the employee’s poor performance was due to a lack of resources.

Psychologists have discovered that we tend to attribute the behavior of other people more to internal than external factors. 26 If an employee is late for work, for example, observers are more likely to conclude that this is because he overslept than to think external factors such as unusually heavy traffic might have caused him to be late.

The tendency to blame people rather than the environment for poor performance is called the fundamental attribution error, and it seems to be a particular problem when there is limited information about situational factors affecting people’s performance.

The fundamental attribution error implies that senior managers tend to blame people, rather than external factors outside their control, for poor performance. In other words, they misinterpret the information in a communication system and make an incorrect attribution.

This can and often does lead to the firing of managers when the units for which they are responsible do not perform well. For example, in August 2004 when Hewlett-Packard reported earnings below Wall Street’s expectations, CEO Carly Fiorina responded by firing three senior executives on the spot.

Fiorina had attributed the company’s poor performance to these executives, but many observers felt that it had more to do with tough competition from rivals Dell and IBM and Hewlett-Packard’s own struggles to merge the assets of Compaq Computer with HP—a merger Fiorina had championed.

Another attribution error is the self-serving bias —the tendency to attribute favorable outcomes to internal factors and our failures to external factors. Simply put, we take credit for our successes and blame others or the environment for our mistakes. The existence of this bias has been well documented. In one recent example a study found that 90 percent of employees who received lower than expected performance ratings blamed them on their supervisor, the organization, the appraisal system, or other external causes.

Only a handful blamed themselves for the unexpected results. The self-serving bias can lead managers to misinterpret information and assume that their efforts, rather than external causes, are responsible for improvements in the performance of the organization. The converse also holds: They may attribute poor performance to external factors when their management of the organization is really at fault.

A final perceptual bias to consider is the recency effect, which occurs when the most recent data dominate our perception of others. The recency effect often occurs in performance appraisals, for which supervisors must recall everyone’s performance over the preceding year.

The most recent performance information tends to dominate the evaluation because it is the easiest to recall. People who know this sometimes try to game a performance evaluation system, submitting important information to their supervisor that presents them in a favorable light just before their annual performance evaluation.


A major source of noise in communication systems is filtering , which is the tendency to alter information in some way, or fail to pass it on at all, as it moves through a communication system.

Filtering may involve deleting or delaying negative information, using less harsh language to present bad events in a more favorable light, or distorting information in other ways to achieve a personal goal. 30 Employees and managers may filter communication to create a good impression of themselves to superiors, to build support for a program or policy they favor, or to foster opposition to a program or policy with which they disagree.

Filtering occurs because organizations are fundamentally political entities and because the control and manipulation of information is a source of power and influence within organizations. Filtering tends to be most common where organizations reward employees who communicate mainly positive information and punish those who convey bad news.

An example of filtering occurred in 2006 when NASA scientists accused a 24-year-old political appointee at NASA, William Deutsch, of censoring reports. Deutsch was a public affairs official; he was able to shape communications issued by NASA in a way he thought favorable to his political masters.

Deutsch used his position to limit media access to James Hanson, a prominent NASA scientist who was urging swift action by the U.S. government to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming (in Deutsch’s view, Hanson’s position was contrary to administration policy). In addition Hanson was required to submit for review any lectures, Internet statements, and requests for interviews from journalists.

Unfortunately for Deutsch his filtering efforts backfired. Hanson publicly complained about the censorship; a blizzard of news reports followed; and an embarrassed NASA denied that it had ever tried to censor government scientists. Deutsch himself resigned from NASA when a journalist discovered that he had padded his résumé (another example of filtering) and did not graduate from Texas A&M University as he had claimed.


Language problems can be a huge source of communication noise. Recall from Figure below that the sender encodes the message and the receiver decodes it. To make this process work, both parties need to have the same “codebook” or mutual understanding of what the words or other symbols being sent mean. Even when both people speak the same language, they might interpret words and phrases differently.

If someone says “Would you like to check the figures again?” he or she may be politely telling you to double-check the figures or may be merely asking if you want to do this.

Language ambiguity isn’t always dysfunctional noise. Corporate leaders sometimes rely on metaphors and other vague language to describe partially formed or complex ideas. Ambiguity is also used to avoid conveying or creating undesirable emotions. For example, one recent study reported that people rely on ambiguous language when communicating with people who have different values and beliefs. In these situations ambiguity minimizes the risk of conflict.

Along with ambiguity, people who generally speak the same language might not understand specific jargon within that language. Jargon consists of technical language and acronyms as well as recognized words with specialized meaning in specific organizations or social groups. For example, engineers at Microsoft commonly use the acronym “Win 36 API” when discussing the design of their products.

The term actually means “Windows 36-bit application protocol interface”—still a somewhat jargon-filled term that refers to “hooks” in the Windows program that interface with software applications, allowing them to run on Windows.

Some jargon can improve communication efficiency when both sender and receiver understand this specialized language. However, technical experts (including university professors) sometimes use jargon without realizing that listeners don’t have the codebook to translate those special words. A recent survey found that people react negatively to unnecessary jargon, which is probably contrary to many senders’ intention to look “cool” by using the latest buzzwords.

Another language problem that can distort information, creating noise, concerns the phenomenon known as drop-off. Drop-off occurs when the content of a message gets distorted as it is passed through a communication system due to the failure of people in the system to accurately decode a message and accurately encode it as they pass it on to the next person.

We already discussed this phenomenon when we talked about the accidental distortions that occur when information is transmitted through different layers in a management hierarchy. There we likened the process to the children’s game of telephone, in which a message is passed through a communication chain of children, with each child whispering the message to the next person in the chain. The message that emerges at the end of the chain is very different from the one that started out.

In a tragic example of the consequences of drop-off, during the Vietnam War a journalist witnessed U.S. troops burning down a Vietnamese hamlet. Subsequent investigations found that headquarters staff had ordered the troops not to burn down any hamlets, but the message had been distorted as it passed through the communication chain so that troops thought that was what they were supposed to do.

The original message from headquarters to the brigade was “On no occasion must hamlets be burned down.” The brigade then radioed the battalion commander and said, “Do not burn down any hamlets, unless you are absolutely convinced that the Viet Cong are in them.” The battalion radioed the infantry company at the scene and said, “If you think there are any Viet Cong in the hamlet, burn it down.” The company commander then ordered his troops to burn the hamlet.


We live in an information-rich world. Many of us feel continually besieged by information, and there is good reason for this. One estimate suggests that the amount of information in the world is currently doubling every 72 days. The Library of Congress catalogs 7,000 new items every day. More than 2,000 new Web sites go online every day. At least 2,000 new books are published every day.

To this we can add the explosion of e-mail communication within organizations that has occurred over the last decade. Some managers receive as many as 300 e-mail messages a day. If you also include voice mail, mobile phone text messages, Web site scanning, PDF file downloads, hard copy documents, and other sources of incoming information, you have a perfect recipe for information overload.

Information overload occurs when the volume of information received exceeds a person’s capacity to get through it. Employees have a certain information processing capacity —the amount of information they can process in a fixed unit of time. At the same time jobs have a varying information load —the amount of information to be processed per unit of time. As Figure below illustrates, information overload occurs whenever the job’s information load exceeds the individual’s information processing capacity.

Information Overload

Information Overload

Information overload creates noise in a communication system because information gets overlooked or misinterpreted when people can’t process it fast enough. It has also become a common cause of workplace stress. These problems can be minimized by increasing our information processing capacity, reducing a job’s information load, or a combination of both.

Information processing capacity increases when we learn to read faster, scan documents more efficiently, and remove distractions that slow information processing speed. Time management also increases information processing capacity. When information overload is temporary, information processing capacity can be increased by working longer hours.


In a world of increasing globalization and cultural diversity, organizations face new opportunities as well as communication challenges. Language is the most obvious crosscultural communication challenge. Words are easily misunderstood in verbal communication if the receiver has a limited vocabulary or the sender’s accent distorts the usual sound of some words. The issue is further complicated in global organizations, where employees from non–English-speaking countries often rely on English as the common business language.

The problem of ambiguous language is amplified when communication is taking place across cultures. For example, a French executive might call an event a “catastrophe” as a casual exaggeration, whereas someone in Germany usually interprets this word literally as an earth-shaking event.

Mastering the same language improves one dimension of cross-cultural communication, but problems may still occur when interpreting voice intonation. Middle Easterners tend to speak loudly to show sincerity and interest in the discussion, whereas Japanese people tend to speak softly to communicate politeness or humility. These different cultural norms regarding vocal volume may cause one person to misinterpret the other.

Cultural differences in nonverbal communication can also lead to noise when people from different cultures try to communicate with each other. Nonverbal communication is more important in some cultures than in others. For example, people in Japan interpret much of a message’s meaning from nonverbal cues. To avoid offending or embarrassing the receiver (particularly outsiders), Japanese people will often say what the other person wants to hear (called tatemae ) but send subtle nonverbal cues indicating the sender’s true feelings (called honne ).

A Japanese colleague might politely reject your business proposal by saying “I will think about that” while sending nonverbal signals that he or she is not interested. “In Japan, they have seven ways to say no; they never want to offend,” advises Rick Davidson, global CIO at Manpower, Inc. “Sometimes they nod their head, and you think you have an agreement, but they’re just saying, ‘I hear you.’”

Information Overload

Many unconscious or involuntary nonverbal cues (such as smiling) have the same meaning around the world, but deliberate gestures often have different interpretations, and this can lead to misunderstanding. For example, most of us shake our head from side to side to say “no,” but a variation of head shaking means “I understand” to many people in India. Filipinos raise their eyebrows to give an affirmative answer, yet Arabs interpret this expression (along with clicking one’s tongue) as a negative response.

Most Westerners are taught to maintain eye contact with the speaker to show interest and respect, yet Australian Aborigines (and people in some other cultures) learn at an early age to show respect by looking down when an older or more senior person is talking to them.

Even the common handshake communicates different meaning across cultures. Westerners appreciate a firm handshake as a sign of strength and warmth in a friendship or business relationship. In contrast, many Asians and Middle Easterners favor a loose grip and regard a firm clench as aggressive. Germans prefer one good handshake stroke, whereas anything less than five or six strokes may symbolize a lack of trust in Spain. If this isn’t confusing enough, people from some cultures view any touching in public—including handshakes—as a sign of rudeness.

Communication also includes silence, but its use and meaning varies from one culture to another. A recent study estimated that silence and pauses represented 30 percent of conversation time between Japanese doctors and patients, compared to only 8 percent of the time between American doctors and patients.

Why is there more silence in Japanese conversations? In Japan silence symbolizes respect and indicates that the listener is thoughtfully contemplating what has just been said. Empathy is also important in Japan, and this shared understanding is demonstrated without using words. In contrast, most people in Australia, India, and many other cultures view silence as a lack of communication and often interpret long breaks as a sign of disagreement.

Conversational overlaps also send different messages in different cultures. Japanese people usually stop talking when they are interrupted, whereas talking over another person’s speech is more common in Brazil and some other countries. This difference in communication behavior is due to interpretations. Talking while someone is speaking to you is considered quite rude in Japan, whereas Brazilians are more likely to interpret this as a person’s interest and involvement in the conversation.


After reading popular books about how men and women communicate, such as the best- sellingMen Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus, you might come to the conclusion that they are completely different life forms. In reality men and women have similar communication practices, but subtle distinctions can occasionally inject noise into communication systems and lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

One distinction is that men are more likely than women to view conversations as negotiations of relative status and power. They assert their power by directly giving advice to others (“You should do the following”) and using combative language. There is also evidence that men dominate the talking time in conversations with women, as well as interrupting more and adjusting their speaking styles less than women.

Men also engage in more “report talk,” in which the primary function of the conversation is impersonal and efficient information exchange. Women also use report talk, particularly when conversing with men; but conversations among women have a higher incidence of relationship building through “rapport talk.”

Rather than asserting status, women use indirect requests such as “Have you considered . . . ?” Similarly, women apologize more often and seek advice from others more quickly than men. Finally, research indicates that women are more sensitive than men to nonverbal cues in face-to-face meetings.

Men and women usually understand each other, but these subtle differences are occasional irritants. For instance, female scientists have complained that adversarial interaction among male scientists makes it difficult for women to participate in meaningful dialogue. Another irritant occurs when women seek empathy but receive male dominance in response.

Specifically, women sometimes discuss their personal experiences and problems to develop closeness with the receiver. However, when men hear problems, they quickly suggest solutions because this asserts their control over the situation. As well as frustrating a woman’s need for common understanding, the advice actually says, “You and I are different; you have the problem and I have the answer.” Meanwhile men become frustrated because they can’t understand why women don’t appreciate their advice.

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