Structural Barriers to Good Communication and Agreement

Structural Barriers to Communication - ADR Times

Communication is an important part of any workplace or group setting, and a key component of reaching agreements.  When communication is healthy, a workplace or group can be productive and reach its objective.  When communication breaks down, other aspects of the workplace begin to fall apart as well.  In some cases, communication breaks down as a result of structural communication barriers.  This is beyond barriers within the group but includes barriers that are created and implemented by the company or society as a whole.  Structural barriers create difficulties for productivity and discourage a team.  In this article, we will explore what structural barriers are, how they apply to communication and how they interfere with coming to agreements.

Structural Barriers to Good Communication and Agreement:

Structural barriers are rules, situations, and policies, spoken or unspoken, that interfere with healthy communication and cause conflict.  Every person exists within a structure that informs the way that they process and perceives patterns in communication. In some workplaces, policies will be codified in their procedures and practices in such a way that everyone knows that they are in existence.  Similarly, laws may act as barriers in society or groups as a whole.  Barriers can also be implied by the ways that the workplace or group operates, stopping communication by implying the communication is unwelcome by a person or the group as a whole.  These barriers will cause miscommunication and misunderstanding that will interfere with any attempts at an agreement that the parties may try and reach.

Types of Structural Barriers:

Several different types of structural barriers affect communication in an organization or group.  These barriers may be broken down into five categories with several barriers under each—systematic, emotional, cultural, cognitive, and physical.


The first type of barrier to communication is a systematic one.  This is a large subset of barriers as it covers any rules, laws, or policies within a group that may be interrupting or breaking down communication.  Again, these may be written or implied policies that cause communication to break down.  Common systematic structural barriers include:

  • Organizational Structure: A common systematic barrier is the organizational structure of the group. In many cases, there is a channel of communication that needs to be followed for a person in one part of an organization to speak with a person in another part or higher up.  If this is not clear or the organization is not structured well, it can cause the parties to fail to communicate well.
  • Coordination: Another common systematic barrier to communication is coordination between the parts of a structure. If one part of a group does not know or understand what another part does or is responsible for, there will be issues with communication between them.
  • Missing Channels: Because there are often channels that funnel communication to the right people, there will often be issues with the way that messages are communicated and interfere with them being communicated at all. This is most common when feedback needs to be given to a person, but there are no clear expectations of how this is done within the organization.
  • Filtering: In some organizations, there are rules and policies in place that only permit communication from certain people to be made to another. In some cases, they will filter out any negative message that is sent to people higher in the organization.  This can interrupt crucial information from reaching the right people if it does not come from the right person or contains the wrong subject matter keywords.

Emotional Barriers:

The second kind of structural barrier to communication is an emotional barrier.  Emotional barriers are feelings and perceptions between two or more people within the organization or group that interfere with the way that they communicate.  This can be the result of a disagreement, or it can be a perception of the other.  Common emotional structural barriers include:

  • Perception: The most common way that emotions will interfere with communication is the result of one or both parties’ perception of the other. This can be the way that they perceive the other’s status within the group, especially if one member has a title and the other does not, or the way that the power dynamic is perceived. This can interrupt the flow of communication between the parties because it will often cause one party to be reluctant to act and they perceive any communication from the other as overwhelming and may cause them to ignore it or treat it with higher importance than needed.
  • Disagreement: Another way that emotions may interfere with agreements and communication is when a disagreement about a task or goal comes into play between the parties. This may cause them to feel at odds with the other party, even if they agree on most things, and can cause communication to fail.


Cultural communication barriers are influenced by the way that individuals have experienced the world which may cause different interpretations and issues within the group.  This can be influenced by things like language, religion, and traditions that influence the way that communication is perceived.  Common cultural structural barriers include:

  • Competency: Especially in culturally diverse groups, a lack of cultural competency can interfere with communication. If all of the members of a group are operating from vastly different cultures, they will each understand and interpret another’s communication in their way.  Understanding how other cultures give and receive information can help the parties communicate effectively.
  • Language: Another common cultural barrier is the way that language is used by the group. If the majority of the group is speaking in a language that is not their first language, the communication may need to be made easy to understand and interpret.  If not, there will likely be issues in communication moving forward.
  • Beliefs: Culture will often influence how people view the world around them, which will influence the way that they communicate. If a person believes that truth is the highest moral value, they will not respond to anything less than the truth.  This can cause a breakdown in communication.

Cognitive Barriers:

Cognitive barriers are those that interfere with the way something was perceived by the person that receives it.  It is often a combination of cultural differences and emotional differences, but the systems in place may also play a role in the way that it is perceived.  Common cognitive barriers include:

  • Interpretation: A word will not always be used for its most basic meaning, but if someone is not familiar with other meanings of the word, they may interpret the message in a completely different way. This will interfere with communication because the message will not have the intended effect.
  • Format: In some organizations, certain messages will need to be provided in a particular format. If not provided in this way, they will often be overlooked or misinterpreted.  This is a way that a systematic issue may influence a cognitive barrier.


The final type of barrier to be discussed is a physical barrier.  This is anything in a group’s or person’s surroundings that will interrupt communication.  Importantly, this is an influence of an outside source on the conversation.  Many different factors can influence how a person is interpreting communication and the physical space they are in, but here are a few that are common:

  • Number of People: A common influence on communication is the number of people involved in a given communication. If there are too few that have differences, communication may break down quickly.  If there are too many parties, people may not be able to communicate effectively.  Watching how many people are involved in a given communication can help improve understanding.  Failing to do so will cause a barrier.
  • Lack of Proximity: One of the biggest influences on communication is nonverbal communication. When a person is physically separated from another, they will not be able to read these cues, and that can cause barriers to communication.
  • Noise: If a person is in a noisy environment, they will not be able to process the communication that is happening because there is too much external interference.

All of these barriers interfere with and halt communication every day.  Recognizing them is an important step in understanding why communication may be failing in the workplace or any other group.

How Structural Barriers Affect Organizational Communication:

Structural barriers can have a great effect on an organization. There are often signs that are missed when barriers begin to interfere with communication.  Noticing these signs can be a helpful step in solving these barriers organization-wide.  Common signs of a communication breakdown include:

  • Missing Work: A common sign of a communication issue is that work is not done that needs to be done. This is especially true if the person who was told to do the work is unaware that they had been told to.  This typically indicates the assignments are not being communicated clearly or effectively and people are often missing them.
  • Duplicated Work: Another indicator that there is a communication problem is duplicated work. This means that multiple people are doing the same work because they are unsure of the exact assignment and do not feel confident that it is not their work.
  • Mismatched Priorities: Another common sign of communication issues is the mismatch of priorities on concurrent projects that employees are working on. This means that an employee may prioritize the completion of one project at the expense of another when the employer would have preferred the neglected project finished first.  Establishing priorities is an important part of working communication, and the lack of consistent priorities may be a sign that communication is lacking.
  • Disjointed Work: Communication may also be lacking if the finished project does not work well together. This is particularly true when there is a group project with different people in charge of different parts, and the parts do not work together. This is a sign that there is an issue with a breakdown in communication among peers.
  • Unmet Expectations: When employees are handing in work that is very different from the picture the that employer or manager had when it was assigned, it is a sign that the communication between the supervisor and employee is breaking down.

Noticing that there is an issue with communication that is affecting the workplace is the first step in navigating the issue and finding a solution.


Structural barriers will interrupt and interfere with communication that is necessary for the parties to achieve their goal and agree.  When barriers begin to pop up, issues will also begin to pop up.  Understanding the various kinds of structural barriers can help a person identify where the issue lies and possibly find a way to solve the problem.  Structural barriers can have a lasting effect on an organization if they are not identified and addressed to encourage the parties to continue their dialogue.  Once communication fully breaks down, it is difficult to remedy.  Structural barriers will often require system-wide attention, but when they are addressed, it creates a system-wide benefit, because a barrier removed for one person or group is often a barrier removed from all.

Mark Fotohabadi
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