Communication Gaps: Is it the “How” or the “What?”

Get it right to ensure the most critical element of team dynamics is in your tool box

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 The “how” is related to how people communicate and interact with you. Think of it as the human side of communication.

Communication is what I argue to be the single most critical element of team dynamics. Of course, there are other important factors to make a team successful, but if communication is broken then nothing else seems significant enough to redeem those shortcomings. But there seems to be some confusion amongst leaders, HR functions, and teams about what communication means, and what needs to be fixed. If we don’t define what good communication looks like up front, we are doomed to be disappointed with someone else’s interpretation of the concept.

Communication is measured… a lot. Particularly on formalized culture surveys, there are always sections to measure the collective temperature on communication. But this is not as easy as you might assume. One of the earliest team engagement surveys I worked with had a giant sinkhole of a communication question in the survey. Respondents answered how much they did or did not agree with this statement: “There is good communication on my team.” After a lot of trial and error it became clear that this question was way too broad, and there were two clear divides on how respondents described their issues with communication. Teams were divided between the “how” and the “what.”

The How

Think of this as the human side of communication. The “how” is related to how people communicate and interact with you. With teams that felt this was the biggest communication problem, there was feedback that sounded like, “No one bothers to come by and tell us what is happening,” or “my boss only speaks to me when I did something wrong,” or “I hate when people copy a senior leader on an email when it isn’t necessary because it diminishes trust that we can work together.” How coworkers interact with each other, how leaders make their employees feel, and the care and transparency used by the CEO in a town hall discussion are examples of how people are communicated with and, basically, treated during human interaction.

“I don’t like how my leader speaks to me”

Root causes

This is one of the most challenging problems to solve, and the way people communicate with each other is deeply rooted in everyone’s behavior and dictated by senior leadership’s communication style. To be perfect at this means that every manager that has direct reports and every coworker needs to consistently interact with each other in a way that says, “I hear you. I see you. You matter to me.” But it can most definitely be driven by leaders setting a good example and eradicating communication that does not support fellow humans. For example, if a leader sees they were passive-aggressively copied on an email, they can address that with the sender to say, “I appreciate you looping me in and the sense of urgency, but it damages trust between you both that you will get the job done without my involvement.” (Side note: In case it is not obvious, this is an honest conversation to be had in person, not an email reply. Please see next section.)

Communicate in Person

Two great solutions to try are (1) train your managers how you want them to interact with others, and (2) Get. Off. Email. Solve your problems and build relationships with real, in person conversations. Invest in making sure all leaders know how to communicate most effectively, and know their role in guiding the culture of their teams to follow suit. Resist the urge to send passive-aggressive nasty grams and don’t leave important conversations to instant messaging. Pick up the phone, walk over to someone, or stay committed to the one-on-one time you schedule together to enable quality, honest conversations. This is the groundwork for people to feel good about “how” they are being communicated to.

The What

Once you have ensured that people are communicating to each other like humans who care, the other side of the communication struggle is what you are communicating and the logistics behind it. This is the organizational process side of communication. Teams often report feeling disengaged when there is lack of communication, or they hear communication from the wrong sources. First, a lack of communication creates uncertainty. People either assume the worst or fill in the gaps with their own stories, none of which look good for the organization. Even if you don’t know what comes next, say that. Many times leaders wait until everything is known, or the messaging is perfect, and in the meantime their ghosting left their team feeling vulnerable.

“I like my boss, but I feel like I don’t know what is going on in the rest of the company”

The source of communication is also important. Communication is most effective when organizations deliver it in a way that is meaningful to the end users and creates a sense of belonging. For example, if you only communicate announcements via email or the intranet (even if those announcements are fire!) and much of your population is tech-free, it is not meaningful. Another problem that erodes belonging is when teams hear something secondhand. Like when a publicly traded company holds information until the press release, but then doesn’t execute an internal communication plan simultaneously and people hear about big news for their company through the media.

Communicate Deliberately

In order to solve the What problem, leaders need to be in lock step with a deliberate communication plan across the organization. This means, every time there is information to share, leaders first think, “Who needs to know about this, in what order, and what do they need to know?” This is not a question that only the one lone Communication Manager asks, it takes a village. Great examples of deliberate communication would be an internal communication cadence for any announcement that affects other people, or consistently announcing leadership changes starting with the people affected the most (direct reports) and continue down the line to all affected parties.

Bridging the Gap

If your team can say they are communicated to with respect and that they feel in the loop on what is going on around them, they will be able to agree that “there is good communication on my team.” However, if you misdiagnose the problem as a “Why” instead of “How,” or vice versa, you will be fighting the wrong fight. Be honest with yourself about which problem is priority with your team’s communication. It is easy to say you are “working on improving communication” by chasing the “Why,” but if your team is asking your leaders to be more human communicators, their engagement level will remain unchanged even with that shiny new corporate communication plan. If you ask your team, and really listen, they will tell you where to focus your energy.

About the author:

Katie Rasoul is the Chief Awesome Officer for Team Awesome, a leadership coaching and culture consulting firm. Find out more by visiting or join the Team Awesome Community for awesomeness coming straight to your inbox. Follow Team Awesome on Facebook and Twitter.

Originally published at

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