The Cost of Poor Communication


The following examples[1] show both personal and organizational costs of poor communication.  As you read through them, consider the following:

  • What was the intended goal of the communication?
  • What are some communication errors that were made?
  • What strategies might have helped participants avoid problematic outcomes?


CASE 1: The promising chemist who buried his results

Bruce, a research chemist for a major petro-chemical company, wrote a dense report about some new compounds he had synthesized in the laboratory from oil-refining by-products. The bulk of the report consisted of tables listing their chemical and physical properties, diagrams of their molecular structure, chemical formulas and computer printouts of toxicity tests. Buried at the end of the report was a casual speculation that one of the compounds might be a particularly effective insecticide.

Seven years later, the same oil company launched a major research program to find more effective but environmentally safe insecticides. After six months of research, someone uncovered Bruce’s report and his toxicity tests. A few hours of further testing confirmed that one of Bruce’s compounds was the safe, economical insecticide they had been looking for.

Bruce had since left the company, because he felt that the importance of his research was not being appreciated.

CASE 2: The unaccepted current regulator proposal

The Acme Electric Company worked day and night to develop a new current regulator designed to cut the electric power consumption in aluminum plants by 35%. They knew that, although the competition was fierce, their regulator could be produced more cheaply, was more reliable, and worked more efficiently than the competitors’ products.

The owner, eager to capture the market, personally, but somewhat hastily, put together a 120-page proposal to the three major aluminum manufacturers recommending that their regulators be installed at all company plants.

She devoted the first 87 pages of the proposal to the mathematical theory and engineering design behind this new regulator, and the next 32 to descriptions of the new assembly line she planned to set up to produce regulators quickly. Buried in an appendix were the test results that compared her regulator’s performance with present models, and a poorly drawn graph showed how much the dollar savings would be.

Acme Electric didn’t get the contracts, despite having the best product. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

CASE 3: The instruction manual that scared customers away

As one of the first to enter the field of office automation, Sagatec Software, Inc. had built a reputation for designing high-quality and user-friendly database and accounting programs for business and industry. When they decided to enter the word-processing market, their engineers designed an effective, versatile, and powerful program that Sagatec felt sure would outperform any competitor.

To be sure that their new word-processing program was accurately documented, Sagatec asked the senior program designer to supervise writing the instruction manual. The result was a thorough, accurate and precise description of every detail of the program’s operation.

When Sagatec began marketing its new word processor, cries for help flooded in from office workers who were so confused by the massive manual that they couldn’t even find out how to get started. Then several business journals reviewed the program and judged it “too complicated” and “difficult to learn.” After an impressive start, sales of the new word processing program plummeted.

Sagatec eventually put out a new, clearly written training guide that led new users step by step through introductory exercises and told them how to find commands quickly. But the rewrite cost Sagatec $350,000, a year’s lead in the market, and its reputation for producing easy-to-use business software.

In a comprehensive study, “David Grossman reported in ‘The Cost of Poor Communications’ that a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees. Debra Hamilton asserted, in her article ‘Top Ten Email Blunders that Cost Companies Money,’ that miscommunication cost even smaller companies of 100 employees an average of $420,000 per year.”[2]

Poor communication costs both the organization and the individual, which is why good communication is such a consistently-needed skill.

[1] Adapted from T.M Georges’ Analytical Writing for Science and Technology.

[2]The Cost of Poor Communication: A Business Rationale for the Communications Competency. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2019, from Excerpted from Patricia M. Buhler and Joel D. Worden, Up, Down, and Sideways: High-Impact Verbal Communication for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2013).