Both the CFO and the CEO stuck their hand into the air as I concluded my keynote and called for questions. “Why don’t employees communicate up in an organization?” There was a little more than a twinge of frustration in the CEO’s question. The CFO added his nod of dismay.
It’s a common conundrum in the C-suite—even from the brightest leaders in the boardroom. The issue deserves serious thought because when downward communication dominates, problems go unresolved and innovation stalls.
Eventually poor internal communication shows up to the customer as poor service or defective products. So back to the root causes:
No System in Place
Some organizations say they want employees to give feedback, to pass on ideas for new services or products, to pass on cost-saving ideas, to speak up about flagrant violation of policies, to let senior management know how to improve things in general.
But that’s only in theory—or at least, that’s the way it sounds to employees. No quick, easy system is in place to communicate those ideas anonymously.
Such a system doesn’t have to be complex. If you’re a small business, you can just make it clear that an email serves the purpose. Another option is to gather feedback through free or paid survey software. Still another option is for a supplier to collect suggestions via email through their email server and feed them back to you anonymously.
Slow or No Response
Some people try to communicate upward once or twice and then give up because they never get a response on their idea. They feel that their feedback or suggestion gets sucked into a big black hole and fails to get serious consideration. They think, “Why bother waste my time again?”
A timely response—whether positive, neutral, or negative—says someone has considered the idea or feedback. A slow response equals no response. So what’s the definition of “timely”?
Various customer service satisfaction surveys suggest that customers expect a response to their email inquiry within 0-4 hours. Compared to this customer expectation, how does the timeliness of your internal responses to team members measure up?
Some employees hesitate to communicate with the boss for fear of reprisal about bad news. Also, a typical comeback from some leaders is to assign the person who points out a problem the task of wrestling that problem to the ground. Who needs another extra-curricular assignment if you’re already working to capacity?
Lack of Accountability
Closely associated with fear, accountability keeps some people mum. If they don’t share their numbers, goals, or metrics, then their boss can’t question them about what went wrong or hold them accountable. Keeping others in the dark—particularly the executive team—means staying off their radar screen.
Some organizations have a parental mentality—created either by leaders or the employees. Leaders may act like parents: “You kids don’t worry about things. We’ll take care of the important things for you. Just do your job and we’ll handle the rest.” In other organizations, the employees have created that culture through their actions or lack of initiative, in effect saying, “That’s not my job. I’ll go play over here. I’m sure you’ll call my name and let me know if I need to pay attention to do anything else or change anything.”
“Family” culture works well when it means friendly. It’s not fine when it means parental.
For whatever reason employees don’t communicate up in an organization, the result remains virtually the same: disengagement, distrust, and stagnation. You can change things by removing these barriers.