Do you look for better workplace communication where you work? Is the information you need to do your job fully available, and does management listen to you? These issues are critical factors in workplace communication, which is about the channels and procedures that bring information to you and get your information to your manager; and it’s about management’s responsibility for it.
A few years ago the British Broadcasting Commission aired a series of unique business documentaries titled Back to the Floor. If you’re not familiar with the series, it featured real-life Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) who leave their comfortable offices and go work on the front lines of their organizations for a week. Cameras followed the CEOs and recorded their interactions with staff, and their responses to those interactions.
In one episode, the managing director of London’s Heathrow Airport took the plunge and worked in customer service for five days. That meant facing customers and dealing with their problems, including problems created by the airport’s own management team. Again in this episode, workplace communication turned out to be a key issue, as it so often does in business stories.
At Heathrow, we saw a CEO taken by surprise, over and over again, as he learned about work life at the front lines. The employees on the front line, and customers too, let the CEO know they were dissatisfied. The staff wanted to let him know about the trouble they had because the people at head office weren’t listening to them.
Over and over again, workplace communication, or a lack of it, came up as a key issue, as CEOs discovered they knew little, or less than they thought, about dealing with real customers and their problems.
Heathrow is hardly an exception. When I published a communication newsletter, the most frequent reader feedback involved management’s failure to listen. Readers made it clear that managers in their organizations did not know what happens in their world, and even more importantly, felt management did not care.
There was also a feeling that individual managers were to blame. However, in my research and experience, it’s not a ‘moral’ failure on the part of individual managers, but rather an institutional failure. In other words, the mechanisms that allow or facilitate workplace communication simply don’t exist.
To establish and maintain these channels and procedures, management must first take responsibility for them. Unless management takes the initiative, there can be no channels for workplace communication, whether up or down the hierarchy, to flow.
After all, employees can — and often do — express their ideas and emotions. But nothing can happen unless someone in management allows it to happen.
For example, in the Heathrow program, the managing director spots some trash in an out-of-the-way spot and calls in a cleanup crew. The customer service manager, who supervised the managing director for the week, chastised him for incurring an expense that wasn’t in the budget (an appropriate response because the customer service manager would be chastised by his immediate superior if he had done that). In response, the CEO made a key policy change on the spot (never a good idea); yet what he really needed were mechanisms to get and give information about such problems, and a then policy that stipulated when exceptions could be made.
By creating a mechanism that allowed workers at the front lines to communicate about that kind of problem (trash), he would get both better results and greater employee loyalty.
In summary, effective workplace communication is only possible when mechanisms exist to move information both up and down within the organization, and only management can establish and maintain those mechanisms.