The Chain of Command

The importance of good communication is deeply ingrained in modern management practice.  It is generally accepted that within a well-run business, information will flow smoothly in every direction – up, down and sideways.  But if this goal is so clearly in sight, why do many businesses suffer from bad communication dynamics?  What enables the free movement of knowledge and opinions across organizational boundaries in some companies, while others are plagued by a creepy mix of rampant rumors and information suppression?   In my experience, it has less to do with formal communication plans than with the underlying behavioral principles of the organization’s leaders.  This blog post concerns one high-impact area of conduct: navigating the chain of command.  

This issue is fraught for a number of reasons.  At a fundamental level, our standard hierarchical management structures create a paradox where communication is concerned.  On one hand, the chain of command is integral to the efficient functioning of the organization – and therefore it must be supported.  On the other hand, the hierarchy must sometimes be ignored or circumvented in order to access information that can’t easily flow through the filter of multiple management layers.  Finding the right balance is difficult, and complexity increases with the number of levels in an organization.  Growing businesses therefore struggle with this issue, as do people making the initial move from first-level manager into a ‘manager of managers’ position.

Maintaining chain-of-command equilibrium is one of those complicated, non-linear management responsibilities that require constant thoughtful attention.  There is no magic formula and no specific set of boxes to tick on the ‘To Do’ list, but I believe that respect for the following guidelines will help set the tone for healthy information flow up and down the organization chart. 

Pull vs. Push.    Enabling the flow of information from people at every level in the organization to senior management is one of the basic pillars of modern ‘open communication’ doctrine.  This sounds easy enough to accomplish, but it’s an area where seemingly virtuous managerial instincts can lead to really bad results.  Consider the typical well-meaning starting point.  Most good managers will tend to approach employee communications with a bias toward accessibility and approachability.  We genuinely want to hear what people throughout the company have to say, so we start with an open-door policy.  Anyone can stop by to tell us what they think!  This sounds OK, but in real life it is too simplistic to just throw the door open and let nature take its course.  This passive approach makes it all too easy to get a distorted view of the organization, to create openings for bad behavior, or to disempower those in middle management roles. 

One of the problems with an open-door policy lies in the specific types of people who typically take it upon themselves to come through the door.   The members of staff who make a beeline for their boss’s boss probably don’t represent a cross-section of the employee base, nor are they necessarily the best and the brightest.  In fact, they might be exactly the kinds of people you don’t want to focus on.  There are a couple of standard types.  First of all, there are the eagerly ambitious young people who naturally gravitate toward any random opportunity for visibility and self-promotion.  This group is fairly benign, but not necessarily worth a lot of time.  More concerning are the weaselly individuals who seek to manipulate perceptions and information flow, often through a convoluted serious of subplots known only to themselves.  Engagement with these people will send ‘worry waves’ through the organization – everyone knows who they are – and the data they provide is suspect.  Other profiles and motivations can come into play, but it always comes down to this: self-selected sources don’t provide a balanced view.

The solution lies in actively pulling information from the organization, rather than just passively relying on that which is pushed to you.  The hardest-working, nose-to-the-grindstone employees generally are not lining up outside the offices of senior managers, so they must be sought out.  The mechanisms for doing so are numerous and straightforward.  Orchestrate small-group gatherings (lunch, coffee); these are particularly useful if they include people from different functions.  Broaden the participation in project meetings.  Walk around, eat in the cafeteria, conduct employee surveys, have an online suggestion box.  It’s fine to maintain an open-door policy if you’re so inclined, just be careful to maintain a balance between those who seek you out and those who don’t.

Don’t Talk About Other People.   Once the stage has been set, free-flowing discussions are often the best means of taking the pulse of the organization.  Ideally, get people talking about products, customers, technology, competition, and market trends.  Find out what they’re working on and how the project is going.  Ask for feedback about company programs and initiatives; ask open-ended ‘what can we do better?’ questions.  Give them an opportunity to ask questions on any topic of their choice.  (Admittedly this once led to a question about my hairstyle during an employee forum, but whatever.) 

Only one subject is really out of bounds.  With very few exceptions, don’t engage in conversations about other people in the organization.  Spontaneous praise of someone should of course be acknowledged, but beware the employee who lays out a trail of breadcrumbs to lure you into an unseemly exchange about his or her boss.  What might seem like ‘active listening’ is actually communication in its own right.  A leader who gets drawn into a negative discussion about an individual will telegraph a lack of support for the person in question and an endorsement of political behavior.

Support Your Subordinates.    On a related note, it is critical to actively indicate support for the management team when interacting with the people below them in the hierarchy.  The managers don’t need to be in the room all the time, but they shouldn’t be in the dark about your engagement with the people in their groups.  Make sure they are fully informed about mechanisms for gathering employee input, and share any feedback openly and regularly.  And when speaking with an employee group, consciously make an effort to convey that the leadership team is cohesive and mutually respectful.   Every little nuance will be noted.

This issue becomes particularly critical, and very complicated, when there is a real or perceived performance problem in one of the management layers in the middle.  I once worked as a member of a team whose leader was really flailing.  This individual was a smart and experienced executive, but lacked the operating skills, domain expertise, and personal resilience demanded by the role.  Members of the team genuinely felt that the business was in danger of collapse, and we dutifully filed in to deliver this message to our manager’s boss.  He never gave an inch, and in many cases was dismissive and seemingly angry about the input – but in due course our manager was removed. 

I remember the extreme frustration we felt about being ignored and being unable to do anything while the business suffered.  But over the years I have come to appreciate that the essence of the big boss’s response was correct, even if his execution left a lot to be desired.  He did a lot of things wrong:  he made a bad hire in the first place, didn’t make a change as quickly as he should have, and was clumsy in dealing with our complaints.  But at least he observed the cardinal rule: the person is either in the position or they aren’t.  You should remove subordinates if they can’t do the job, but you simply cannot undermine them while they are still in the chair. 

Some of the most destructive organizational dynamics I have ever witnessed have been a direct result of the leader’s failure to successfully deal with this issue.  It is incredibly destabilizing when people sense that their boss does not enjoy the confidence of his or her superior.  While waiting for the other shoe to drop, even the best teams will be nervous about the future.  At worst, they will stop taking direction, slack off, and gossip.  

Don’t Kid Yourself.     When bosses do fail to support their subordinates, it can be for any number of reasons: insecurity, political maneuvering, or just general cluelessness.  Whatever the reason, it is interesting to note that people who are unsupportive of their teams always seem to justify their behavior in exactly the same way – it’s all about how down-to-earth and unpretentious they are! 

Under the guise of being a ‘man of the people’, managers with this particular blind spot will happily listen to complaints about members of their own team.  They may actively inquire about people or in extreme cases, even engage in disparaging their own subordinates.  When questioned, these are the kinds of things I have always heard from people who are in the process of actively undermining their staff:   “I’m just not a hierarchical person.”  “They came to me.”  “Our organization can’t be rigid.”  “Don’t be paranoid.”  “This isn’t the military, you know.”  “The chain of command is such an 1950’s concept.”

All squid ink, in my view.   It’s a classic diversionary tactic to paint those who challenge the behavior as uptight, but an egalitarian narrative doesn’t change the fact that enormous damage is being done. 

Get Information the Right Way  This isn’t to say that you should never seek input about your management team from their subordinates – just that there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.  The ideal scenario would involve a structured 360° assessment process, augmented by regular informal data points about the mood of the organization.  A steady flow of information will eliminate the need to suddenly swoop in on a data-gathering mission when there are signs of trouble – a disruptive process that often takes on an unfortunate ‘popularity contest’ flavor. 

In practice, mid-sized companies often don’t have formal processes in place, and it’s a real challenge to find the time for regular informal engagement.  But a discreet and professional approach is still possible.  It’s easy to retain a consultant to conduct a 360° assessment of everyone on the leadership on a one-time basis, and the opinions of a few trusted people can be gathered judiciously.  If input from subordinates is needed, consider an indirect approach.  For example, the boss’s boss from my story above could have engaged with us in this way: “Let’s set the leadership issue aside for the time being.  Why don’t you tell me what your customer/product/market concerns are about the business these days?”  He would have gained some valuable insight and reassured us about his attentiveness to the business issues – without indulging in an inappropriate conversation about our boss. 

Beware the Negativity Snowball.   It’s worth noting that there is a nasty little human nature thing that can come into play when gathering information about an employee whose performance is cause for concern.  Specifically, it’s natural to want validation when closing in on the big qualitative decision to remove or re-assign someone.  It will be much easier to justify the action (to yourself and to others) if there is overwhelming evidence that the employee is performing poorly. 

The problem is that gathering this evidence is a risky and negative endeavor at best, while at worst it can cross the line into actually creating opportunities to demonize the person in question.  It is not unusual to see a manager reach out to various constituencies (subordinates, customers, employees, peers) with subtle or not-so-subtle cues that bad marks are anticipated – often after the decision has actually been made.  The resulting snowball of negative feedback serves no purpose other than making the decision-maker feel better, and it can have a destructive impact on both the individual in question and the larger organization. 

When it comes to personnel decisions, there is a very fine line between responsible validation and starting a witch hunt.  We all fall prey to the basic emotional need for endorsement of our difficult decision; the key is to be aware of it and try to control it.  Once you’ve made the decision, STOP seeking more data points – from subordinates or from anyone else.  No good can come of it. 

In Summary.   When I reflect upon leaders I have known who excel at creating healthy communication dynamics, there is one common thread.  They instinctively realize that just as individuals at every level in the organization need to be acknowledged and respected, so does the hierarchy itself.  Although it’s somewhat counter-intuitive at first, consistent reinforcement and support of the chain of command will actually make the management layers more porous.  A clear organizational framework is reassuring for the best employees.  Secure managers don’t feel the need to run a closed shop.  And a leader who exhibits straightforward, transparent behavior tends to build confidence and inspire others to conduct themselves in the same way.

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About The COO Blog

During my 20+ years as a business leader, I have been dropped into complete operational chaos on a number of occasions – guided only by instructions to "fix this". No amount of training is sufficient to fully prepare one for the initial experience. But after baptism by fire, I found that subsequent operating challenges became less traumatic and distinct patterns started to emerge.

Over time, I have developed sound operational instincts and assembled a set of general-purpose management tools that can be adapted to various circumstances. Every situation is unique and certain lessons can only be learned the hard way, but some of my operational leadership expertise can be shared – and so I offer this blog.

~ Margaret Craig

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© Copyright 2010 Margaret Craig Chick photo credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, licensed under GFPL 1.2

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