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Why Bosses Dont Get All the News

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.

About The Author

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Each week subscribers receive, at no charge, a new communication tip that helps them lead or manage more effectively. Click here for more information: http://www.CommunicationNewsletter.com

abbottr@managersguide.com

In The News:

'Demonstrators are the people's enemy' - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam
Mon, 11 Nov 2019 03:19:00 +0000
Hong Kong's embattled leader has said the violence has far exceeded the call for democracy and that demonstrators are now the "people's enemy".

State of emergency over 'catastrophic' Australia bushfires
Sun, 10 Nov 2019 03:18:00 +0000
New South Wales has declared a state of emergency as its deadly bushfires are expected to get much worse.

Co-founder of White Helmets found dead days after Russia claimed he was a spy
Mon, 11 Nov 2019 10:59:00 +0000
A former British Army officer who co-founded the White Helmets volunteer force in Syria has been found dead in Istanbul.

Top US diplomat 'was told to oppose Trump' by his team
Mon, 11 Nov 2019 09:35:00 +0000
Donald Trump's former ambassador to the UN says she was told to oppose the president's policies by key figures in his administration.

Star sent off for reacting to fans' 'racist' abuse cried 'tears of helplessness'
Mon, 11 Nov 2019 07:44:00 +0000
A footballer has said he cried tears of "helplessness" after he was sent off for reacting to alleged racist abuse by fans during a match in Ukraine.



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