I’ve been thinking about organizational communication lately. My niece graduated with a degree in it this year. I started a new job this year, and have been analyzing communication within a much larger organization. Most attention gets given to top-down communication, and even that tends to break down. Bottom-up communication tends to be in much worse shape. These are my observations as to why.
If you believe you are more important, intelligent, whatever than the people talking to you, first, you’re wrong, and second, you won’t even acknowledge them. I’ve seen it go to the point of a CEO ignoring the unanimous input of his entire tech team on technical issues. You just don’t understand, Jeff–the point isn’t to be right; the point is for me to be right.
Sometimes people just don’t care. Maybe it’s tenured faculty or the boss’s son. Very little will happen to them if they don’t care. They don’t want to deal with anyone’s problems. They are checked out. Ideally, these people would not be employees, let alone leaders, in your organization, but it does happen. These people’s attitudes breaks the bottom-up chain of communication completely.
Tends to require heavy doses of ego. Deciding that an issue is not important just because it is not important to you. It’s probably less costly to just listen than to force people to make you listen.
intentionally ignoring people
This is a bit different from dismissiveness in that it is more calculated. If you’ve ever gotten the corporate run around of being transferred between 5 different departments only to have your call dropped, I can tell you it’s not always much better inside a large organization. I see this more in peer-to-peer communication, especially across departments. I didn’t see much of this in a smaller organization. Everyone knew each other, needed each other more, and therefore tended not to cavalierly dispense disrespect. I used just need where I kept track of things I was waiting for. Now, I have to keep a list of things I’ve had to completely drop due to the total apathy of others (even after following up multiple times). People take the stance that since you can’t make them do anything, they should ignore you by default. It’s an extremely greedly optimization that causes massive damage to the global organization. The danger of this is that it leads to mirroring of the same behavior. If that person or their department needs something critical in the future, everyone who got blown off in the past is going to remember that. The silos go up and become fortified–the distrust and disrespect slowly grow into all out war.
illusions of communication
We have a weekly meeting that anyone can theoretically call. The misguided idea is that it is more efficient not to have a meeting if there is no need for one. The reality is that no one calls the meeting (except the boss) because your one issue would have to be significant enough to use a lot of people’s time. Now the aggregate small issues of everyone get ignored. Even worse, if anything ever comes up, you’re to blame because you could have called a meeting. It’s a complete illusion that acts to suppress communication while appearing to be a communication mechanism.
Let’s talk about fake Scrum standups. If 95% of the meeting is watercooler chat, smoke blowing, and posturing with 5% devoted to blockers that just go into a black hole, all you have is the illusion of communication.
Another illusion of communication I see is car dealers, dentists, etc. with online forms. They seem to want the illusion of having a web presence. If you are not going to even respond to the form or just tell that person to call someone, don’t bother putting the damn form up!
actual bandwidth limits
It is possible that someone is getting hit with so many messages that they just can’t keep up with them. In this case, there is usually one of two problems (1) the person in power is unwilling to give up power, (2) the company is trying to do more than it has the resources to do and just needs to focus. In the first case, more people need to be hired and power delegated to them to respond to incoming messages. Usually ego prevents this from happening. In the 2nd case, ego usually causes a company to overestimate its abilities and choke to death on its own ambition.
completely not monitoring bottom-up channels
Sometimes there’s plenty of bandwidth, but people are just not paying attention. If you have a Facebook page intended to facilitate communication, but then you just post to it and never check it, it’s just one-way, top-down communication. Maybe that’s the intent; maybe it isn’t.
I wrote weekly status reports at my last job. There was a section where you could raise problems. It’s clear that those status reports were rarely, if ever, read.
no intentional design
I think often almost no thought goes into intentional design of bottom-up communication mechanisms. Mechanisms are simply in place by inertia and tradition. Leaders don’t challenge themselves as to whether what they are propping up a broken system or even a complete sham. If issues are not being raised or simply dismissed arbitrarily by any link in the chain, then the system is broken. A system the could be used for communication is not the same as a system that actively extracts and propogates communication.