If you want to understand why your boss doesn’t know what’s going on, don’t blame the managers between you and your boss. Consider that maybe it is what happens to information as it flows upward in an organization, maybe it is walking the tightrope of business communication.
The British Broadcasting Corporation and PBS, here in the USA, aired a popular business show called “Back to the Floor.”
The CEOs, on the show, leave their corner offices for a period of time and begin to work on the front lines. And the cameras see everything as it happens. For many, if not all of the CEOs, the experience is a great eye-opener. And, according to the magazine, “Almost without exception, CEOs learn a lesson in communication. The show’s producer said that ‘We find people at the heart of every organization exactly who knows what’s right and what’s wrong with it’. ‘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, think about all the barriers that exist when it comes to good upward communication. And, rather than blame middle management, let’s consider possibly instead, it’s an issue with the structure. First, upward communication calls for the collecting of information or data. For example, a supervisor might report on the efforts of five front-line staff, a manager then combines the data of five supervisors, and a vice-president pulls together all the information provided by five managers. As all the collected information combines in this way, it loses most of its context and richness. By context and richness, I mean the subjective 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 narratives; they want summaries of the information. Second, as information or data moves upward, it tends to be inserted into pre-existing categories. Employees on the front- lines know and understand the degrees of each customer story; it reflects, to a lesser or greater extent, the personal relationship between worker and customers. But, there’s no place for different degrees 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 their instructions have been followed. When they want competitive or operational information they 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 stay abreast of the action on the front lines, they’ll need to address the structural nature of upward communication.