The risks of poor communication in collaboratives

Many of us have heard colleagues complain about team efforts that feel like “herding cats” or “rearranging chairs on the Titanic.” But how often are these dangers the reality – and what is the real cost of such patterns of group behavior?

One study in 1987 showed that inefficient group meetings had cost an organization $71 million in just one year (more than $150 million in today’s dollars) – and that the inefficiencies were simply the result of lack of guidance in meeting objectives.

This case may seem like an extreme one, but it is very common for group members to report dissatisfaction with meeting processes. This can become a vicious cycle because an individual’s engagement with the group will largely depend on their perception of the group.

While many may realize that their group is stuck, few may realize that miscommunication is at the root. Research says that common barriers for group progress include different languages, excessive parallel conversations, lack of engagement, and social fears. Social conformity often stifles opposing views, causing a minority of people to dominate discussions and decisions, which just perpetuates dysfunctional power systems.

Groups may also become trapped in escalating cycles of conflict. Certain individuals may block group progress, for example, by not “pulling their weight” or by taking excessive ownership and credit for the group’s work. Two people can become locked in an seemingly endless argument in which they are both saying the same thing yet are certain that they disagree. Or larger factions can divide the group, such as a few members that share a perspective that contradicts some of the basic assumptions of the entire team’s work or some members that want to take everyone else in a completely different direction and resist any efforts to do otherwise.

These challenges of course can lead to unfavorable outcomes. The worst-case scenario is that useful information remains withheld, group creativity is impeded, and progress halts. 

“Members of groups too often experience difficulty balancing both task and social needs,” group communication researcher Lawrence Frey explains. “They feel unable to contribute wholeheartedly to the content of a decision discussion while working on group relationships and adopt the first available solution to avoid social tensions resulting from disagreement.”

It is natural for group members to be afraid of how others will react to their ideas and to be hesitant to try new problem solving techniques. Communication is the way that they can come to trust one another so that they are willing to consider unfamiliar avenues.

“Communication may be the lifeblood that flows through the veins of groups but unfortunately, all too often, when groups are left on their own, those veins become clogged, communication ceases to flow, and the result is that groups flounder and perform less effectively than possible,” adds Frey.

Groups need to use communication tools that help them avoid ruts and ease relations. This may mean that they also need assistance from individuals outside of the group.

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Sundaram, U. Group effectiveness: Purpose of group facilitation. IIT Bombay: Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management.

Orviz, A.F. (2010). Effective collaboration in multi-disciplinary teams. Glasgow School of Art.

De Oliviera, J.S. (2015). How to have difficult conversations. The practical playbook: Public health and primary care together. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Sunwolf, & Frey, L. R. (2005). Facilitating group communication. The handbook of group research and practice, 485-509. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.