Middle managers are often blamed for the communication gap that exists between front line employees and a company’s upper management. Instead of wasting time pointing fingers, discover where the heart of the problem lies.
Not long ago, a friend who works in television complained that the industry has no interest in real business stories. And, I had to agree with him, since we don’t see much coverage that doesn’t involve stock prices or some sort of scandal.
But, there has been one important exception. A few years ago, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began airing a business show that became as popular as some of its regular prime-time fare (American and Canadian television networks followed up with their own versions of the program).
Fast Company magazine told us about the BBC program, which sees CEOs leaving their corner offices for a stint on the front lines. And, as they work on the front lines, the cameras are rolling.
For many, if not all CEOs who participated, the experience was a great eye-opener. According to the magazine, “Almost without exception, CEOs learn a lesson in communication. ‘We find people at the heart of every organization who know exactly what’s right and what’s wrong with it,’ says [Robert] Thirkell [who produces the show]. ‘But between them and the bosses is a layer of people — those whose careers depend on sanitizing that information. Bosses are always surprised at how much knowledge exists further down the ladder.'”
With that in mind, let’s spend a minute or two thinking about the barriers to good upward communication. But, rather than blame middle management, which seems to be one of the themes of the program, we’ll look at structural issues.
First, upward communication involves the aggregation of information or data. For example, a supervisor reports on the collective efforts of five front-line staff, a manager aggregates the data of five supervisors, and a vice-president aggregates the information provided by five managers.
As the information gets aggregated this way, it loses most of its context and richness. By richness, I’m talking about the anecdotal and personal knowledge that front-line workers gather and build from continuous interactions with customers or users. Obviously, most CEOs don’t have time to read reports comprised of hundreds of anecdotes; they want summaries of the information.
Second, as information or data moves upward, it tends to be slotted into pre-existing categories. Employees on the front-lines know and understand the nuances of each customer story; it reflects, to a greater or lesser extent, the personal relationship between worker and customer. But, there’s no place for nuance in weekly reports.
Third, upward communication normally deals with compliance, rather than competitive or operational intelligence. Managers use information moving up the hierarchy to determine how well instructions have been followed. When they want competitive or operational information they often use different means, such as bringing in consultants or commissioning studies.
It’s always tempting to attribute communication failures to moral failures by managers, but if you really want to understand communication failures, you should start by looking for structural hurdles.
In summary, CEOs who spend time on the front lines will undoubtedly be in for many surprises. But, if they want to get the news from the front lines, they’ll need to address the structural nature of upward communication.