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Do you listen to your bottom or your front..?

Do you listen to your bottom or your front..?

Not your actual bottom or front; the bottom level in an organization which is also sometimes called the front line….

I tuned into a LinkedIn discussion recently on bottom-up communications, which is where the ‘shop floor’ employees (for want of a better phrase) get their views and ideas communicated up to the top management.

This question was posed: “How do I find examples of best practice in bottom-up communications?” Sadly, the first answer someone offered was: “I’ve worked for a number of Fortune 500 companies and none of them have a system in place for bottom-up communications.”

I was saddened rather than surprised, because while it is true that in many companies the top management have a number of fairly successful methods for communicating their messages down through the ranks to the front line, the communication systems rarely exist or function well when communications need to go in the reverse direction. Like the salmon swimming upstream, some messages get through but many fall at the first hurdle (or waterfall!) because there are no effective channels or processes in place.

The unfortunate reality is that in many companies the frontline staff are not encouraged to bring ideas and issues to senior managers, in some views and ideas are invited and then never acted upon or feedback given. People who perceive that they have not been listened to in the past, or not involved, will never even consider putting forward their views. So many front line people assume nobody is listening, or nobody cares or no senior manager would understand.

As the Japanese consultant Sidney Yoshida said, in his aptly named study “The Iceberg of Ignorance”: “Only 4% of an organisation's front line problems are known by top management, 9% are known by middle management, 74% by supervisors and 100% by employees..." (see slide in the presentation on SlideShare)

This research has more recently been dramatized by the “Back to the Front” TV Series which saw a number CEOs take on an anonymous role on the front line, each discovering major issues and opportunities they never know existed.  

A great business is based on innovation and ideas, as Richard Branson said: "An innovative business is one which lives and breathes 'outside the box'. It is not just good ideas, it is a combination of good ideas, motivated staff and an instinctive understanding of what your customer wants."

Surely if anyone has their finger on the pulse of what customers wants, it’s the customer-facing staff, after all they do interact with them the most... So surely line managers and senior managers would willingly listen to those employees who are closest to what the customers want… In many companies they don’t.

Why does this happen? Why let the potential for good ideas go to waste for want of introducing a proper bottom-up system of communication?

One reason is historical. Having one-way communications “is how it is here” and nobody has thought to challenge or change it, hence the comment about the Fortune 500.

New, innovative companies run by entrepreneurs are less likely to fall into this trap.

Take Innocent, that hugely successful smoothie company set up only a few years ago by three university friends. It’s had its critics, not least for selling its product in McDonald’s and for selling a major share of itself to Coke. But, when it comes to bottom-up communications, Innocent certainly appears to know what it’s doing.

For example, when visited some time ago by British Soft Drinks Association director general Jill Ardagh, she was bemused to find the staff all playing with hula hoops in the car park, part of their weekly Monday morning exercise session, where staff and managers mingle, chat and share ideas.

From the outset the company, now some 200-strong, has been committed to listening to its staff. When the idea of selling in McDonald’s was first mooted, the entire team was consulted.

And take this from their website: “We want to create a business we can be proud of. And we want Innocent to become a global, natural, ethical food and drinks company, always remaining commercially successful and socially aware. To make this happen, we need brilliant people, who inspire and deliver change all around them. So that’s why we’re always looking for talented, ambitious and altruistic folks to come and join us.”

It’s this attitude which led to Innocent being awarded The Best Workplace in the UK by both The Guardian and The National Business Award.

But that’s enough about Innocent. What about everyone else? It might be easier to take a new company and introduce an excellent bottom-up communication system but what about established companies, which haven’t given thought to this before? What’s stopping them?

Another reason might be the concern of some managers, who feel that by allowing ideas to filter up from frontline staff to senior management, they may be bypassed or sidelined or – worse still – dispensable.

Fear of job erosion or loss; fear another person will be seen as more effective by those upstream, fear that letting other departments or senior people know there is a problem can be a major barrier to bottom-up communications, where – even if a system is in place – it can be sabotaged by those reluctant to allow ideas to filter through.

And then there’s the company culture of working in silos. The “we do our thing – you do yours and never the twain shall meet” which is related to the “not invented here” attitude.

Of course it could be simple poor understanding – the message IS actually being said and people are “hearing the words” it is just the “meaning” is not being absorbed or understood.  A good example here is this short (and funny) video called Pink Fluffy Unicorns – the message is trained in and repeated – just not absorbed or understood.

Take a look at your own business, or – better still – get an independent, objective view from an outsider. How good are your bottom-up communications? You wouldn’t be missing out on some great ideas for want of listening, would you..?

In a future blog I’ll take a look at bottom-up communications from a good practice point of view which will hopefully give you some pointers on how to get effective two-way communication working in your business; rather than Pink Fluffy Dinosaurs, he did say dinosaurs didn't he..?

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