Ten Ways to Shut Down Bottom-Up Communication

Let’s explore how managers usually contribute to shutting down bottom-up communication.

Where there are accidents, unhappy customers, or low productivity there is a shadow organization that people naturally don’t want to look at. People are making mistakes they don’t talk about. They are acting on partial information because they don’t want to ask dumb questions, and they are hiding the things that aren’t going well because they don’t want to be humiliated or they don’t want to be the naysayer. Many prefer to stick to “It’s none of my business. Why should I risk myself to speak up?” Most likely, the information we need for recovery is all around us, but we are sabotaging ourselves by blocking out valuable resources.

It is hard to judge the cost of people not speaking up, but the health industry estimates spending over $17.1 B on medical errors in 2008, with at least 58% of nurses in one study saying that they are afraid or uncomfortable about questioning doctors. With reports showing that many people knew about the problems on the Macondo Well project in 2010, we could make informed judgments about the cost of not speaking up and not listening in that situation. Sidney Dekker, author of Just Culture: Restoring Trust and Accountability, just delivered a keynote to a large audience of software developers who wanted to learn how to stop people from hiding their coding mistakes.

How can we go about changing our behavior so that we create an environment of trust and open communication? A manager’s reaction to mistakes or misunderstandings is critical to keeping the lines of communication open, however, there are many ways in which communication is hampered by common managerial behaviors and reactions. Here is a list of the top ten that direct reports have told me during interviews:

  1. Pointing out the ways in which the responsibility for the mistake lies completely with the other person, and how you provided clear direction.
  2. Pulling back on someone’s responsibilities or not seeking their input after an error.
  3. Having a small circle of “trusted advisors” that excludes other team members.
  4. Not sharing final reports and presentations to higher-ups.
  5. Using tone of voice and body language that indicate you are frustrated on angry about an error or question.
  6. Failing to recognize other’s contributions or input to a successful outcome.
  7. Being non-responsive or not following up on information.
  8. Using your phone or computer while in a meeting or communicating with someone 1-1.
  9. Displaying annoyance about or ignoring dissenting points of view.
  10. Ignoring or deleting someone’s input on a project without substantial conversation.

Any person in a position of power be it CEO, manager, supervisor or team lead, has the power to create open communication or shut it down. Self-awareness is key, because we have to be willing to be sensitive to the impact we are having on others. So if you are thinking about taking some personal responsibility, it indicates some self-awareness.

There are practices and skills to maintain open communication like ask questions before you judge a situation, solicit feedback on a regular basis to find out how you are impacting people, ask people for their understanding of your communications, or end assertive statements by asking for other points of view.

However, using these skills successfully comes from a sense of humility, curiosity, and willingness to be vulnerable. These traits aren’t part of the business curriculum, so we have to pursue them on our own. For me it came down to asking myself, “Will I be more successful if I seem to always have the right answer or will we all be more successful if ask questions and recognize that I have to rely on others to get a full view of reality?”

Most of the pressure comes down on the side of assertiveness and being right. I am not saying you don’t have to know your stuff, but I find that treating people with respect require trust, self-confidence and self-esteem. Extensive experience with operational and executive teams has taught me that in the long run treating people that way will result in better information gathering, decision-making, and results.

I’d love to hear from you. How have your been shut down? How do you practice open communication? How have you recovered trust and open communication?

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