Most organizations comprise layers of management that operate very much like a caste system. Horizontal communication in any given layer is relatively easy and fluid, but communication either up or down the food chain is not.
When a spacecraft returns from orbit, there is about a four-minute period when the buildup of electromagnetic radiation is sufficient to block out all radio contact. During this period, no communication is possible between the spacecraft and ground control. At NASA, this is officially known as “LOS” or “loss of signal.”
A similar kind of LOS occurs between senior management and staff. Most organizations comprise layers of management that operate very much like a caste system. Horizontal communication in any given layer is relatively easy and fluid, but communication either up or down the food chain is not. (Think of an apartment building; it’s much more likely that you’ll be friendly with a neighbor down the hall than one three floors up.) At the very highest level, all communication from below is filtered in some important way. Whether this editing is conscious or unconscious, it is ubiquitous. The chief executive almost never gets the straight poop—he or she gets an edited version that is packaged for consumption. “Here is what we want the boss to know” or “here is what we think the boss should know” are the filters. Because of this, the view from the bridge is always a bit foggy, contributing to the perception that senior management is somewhat out of touch with the rank and file (it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy).
To combat the phenomenon of LOS, it’s very important to establish a culture of communication that encourages candor. Straight talk and clear thinking lead directly to effective results. Any firm whose synapses are clogged with too much novocaine cannot operate nimbly and effectively. One good way to reduce LOS is to set up project teams that include staff from several different layers in the organization. Such cross-functional teams are a good way to break down the inherent barriers caused by management hierarchies.
Another good tactic is to conduct periodic “360-degree” reviews, in which each staff member is reviewed not just by superiors, but subordinates as well. This helps each person understand how he or she is perceived by others in the organization, regardless of rank. (If you haven’t undergone a 360, the results are sure to surprise you!) Still another strategy is to promote from within whenever possible. If the ranks of senior management are substantially filled with those came from the trenches, it will be easier to maintain trust in the chain of command.
Most importantly, the chief executive officer must set the right tone. If the communication style is one of openness and approachability, this will be mimicked by the rest of the organization. If, on the other hand, the chief executive is remote, guarded, and hard to read, the rest of the staff will conduct itself accordingly.
Regardless of your position in the food chain, the burden falls on you to ensure that you are both sending and receiving information in the right way-clearly, succinctly, and accurately. Communication is neural network of your firm; nothing gets done without it. When you are in a position of power and authority, it’s too easy and too seductive to broadcast from your bully pulpit and assume that you are communicating properly.
Remember that being a good talker is much easier than being a good listener. Good listeners attract information and ideas, and good listeners engender trust. Hence, good listeners are powerful (and they are rare).
All organizations suffer from LOS to some degree. When you are the leader of a firm, you are especially susceptible to its symptoms. To get the best out of your staff, they need to know how to reach you with their concerns and their ideas.
Remember that broadcasting and receiving are not the same thing. It’s surprising how often what we think we say is totally misinterpreted by the audience, despite all good intentions. This is like speaking French to an audience of Germans; even if you’re fluent, you’re bound to be misunderstood. To be a better communicator, use the language of the audience and check to see what they heard, not what you said. You’ll be amazed at the difference.