Kill the Hierarchy! - Open Communication

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how a flatter organisational structure enables open communication. Successful businesses rely on open communication. Open communication has never been more important it is now – a time when organisations are being pressured to change faster and more often. A flatter hierarchy will be needed to achieve this.

For an organisation to survive and thrive in a world of constant and uncertain change, the organisation has to be one in which leadership is important, but MORE important is a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom reign over hierarchical boundaries. This enables innovation, creativity, experimentation, rapid decision-making, agility and employee ownership, engagement and influence. There is widespread autonomy and everyone leads.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to!

The ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model shown the diagram below, illustrates the changes needed to move to a flatter structure, and it is these changes that we shall be exploring in this series of posts.

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Open communication – what is it?

 Communication is the flow of information between people.

Organisations will not survive without it.

Open communication occurs when everyone can participate, discuss, debate and express ideas.

Everyone is equal and participating on a level playing field with a transparent relationship.

Organisations will not thrive without it.

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Open communication will increase employee performance, engagement and motivation. Increased productivity increases profitability. There is a financial and reputational motive to create a culture of open communication.

Open communication can only effectively flow when the hierarchy is flattened. If communication has to go from one level of authority to another and another for approval before it gets disseminated, it will have changed in nature (content) and be received too late by its recipients.

It's like Chinese whispers in slow motion!

A flat organizational structure with reduced management layers means the CEO can have direct communication with virtually all employees which promotes a free flow of ideas and information.

Benefits

Employee engagement

 Open and transparent communication gives everyone visibility of where the organisation is going and what needs to be done to get it there. There is a shared sense of purpose and everyone is working towards the same outcome.

This increase morale, motivation and engagement.

In an earlier post in this series called ‘Kill the Hierarchy – Employee Engagement’ I discussed what employee disengagement can cost Australian organisations when it turns into attrition.

According to Workplace Info, if an organisation of 500 employees could reduce attrition from 10% to 5% they could save the business over $2.5 million a year.

Their website states:

“A business with 500 employees can expect to have 50 resignations per year. Latest Average Weekly Earnings (AWE) figures issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (for November 2015) record AWE for full-time employees of $1,499.30. Adding 30% to this for the cost of employee benefits and on-costs amounts to $449.79, giving a total cost of $1,949.09.
 
Assuming turnover cost to be a year’s total remuneration for each employee, total annual cost of turnover for this business is $1,949.09 x 52 weeks x 50 employees. That’s a total of $5,067,634 per year. So a retention strategy that was able to reduce employee resignations from 10% to 5% per year would save this business over $2.5 million per year, less the costs of implementing the strategy”.
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Employee attraction and retention

Open communication leads to employee engagement, which in turn means that organisations can both retain and attract the talent that they need.

Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:

“If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay”. 

 Rapid feedback loops

Open communication allows for rapid feedback loops where communication flows freely up and down (as well as across) the organisation.

Feedback lies at the heart of open communication. Feedback loops increase competitiveness.

When all levels of the organisation can provide feedback on decisions, problems, opportunities, work-in-progress etc. the organisation be driven in the right direction.

Feedback can be received from the place in which it has greater context. Employees on the front line can provide real-time feedback in regards to the customer experience, which could result in change being made to service offerings or service delivery. 

A person in marketing who becomes aware of a planned market push by a competitor for a particular product provide the feedback so that the organisation can shift and remain competitive.

Rapid decision-making resulting in successful outcomes is driven by real-time open communication.

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Open communication and feedback loops are also important to provide employees and their leaders / managers with feedback on performance. The dreaded performance review should not be a bi-yearly or annual event. It should happen all of the time.

For open communication and feedback loops to be effective, trust and respect are paramount.

Clear messages

Open communication provides clarity of message. The message is not created and then modified numerous times by management who believe they understand the intended audience better than anyone else.

Continual modification muddies the water and clarity is lost. Also, if messages are disseminated down through various chains-of-command, they are also subject to variation along the way. By the time they are received by employees, there are now various versions of what was intended as one message. Employees receive mixed messages.

Confusion results in employee disengagement and lost productivity whilst they worry and try to determine what is actually being said.

How to get there

 Trust

Number one is trust. An environment of trust can take time to cultivate but without it communication will not be open and transparent. All employees – top to bottom – establish trust by making commitments and delivering on them. It is about everyone making themselves vulnerable with each other and knowing that someone has your back.

Platform

Provide a platform for open communications, which could be utilised globally if needed. There are numerous software solutions available to support open communication and sharing of ideas but don't forget to make the selection open too. Involve employees in the selection process, allow them to give feedback and contribute their selection criteria. Involve them in prototyping and pilots. Involve them in shortlisting and final selection.

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No-blame

No communication, suggestion, idea or feedback should be reproached. If an employee gets slapped down by another employee, because their idea is perceived as worthless, they will stop communicating.

Every piece of communication should be openly and enthusiastically welcomed. Don't shoot the messenger!

Handle conflict

Where conflict arises, ensure it gets nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester. Have a process and facilitation capability in place to address this. Encourage the employee to deal directly with those with whom they have conflict so that the idea of ‘open’ communication permeates.

Respond

Remember that communication is two-way and that when a response is expected, one should be received. If employees believe that communication is one-way and despite them being heard, no corresponding action is being taken, they will stop communicating. They will just say ‘what is the point, they are not listening’.

 In short

A flat organisational structure, with fewer layers of management, improves communication. Communication is open, faster, easier and less likely to be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Organisations are able to respond faster to feedback and remain competitive.

Effective open communication ensures that everyone is one the same page. When information is being shared efficiently, resilience to a rapidly changing and increasingly complex work environment can be boosted.

Coming up!

Upcoming posts in this series entitled ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ will continue to explore how we flatten the hierarchy in order to achieve rapid and decentralised decision-making, employee engagement, high levels of collaboration, widespread autonomy, trust and respect, and an environment in which everyone leads.

More posts on their way over the coming weeks and months, exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

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Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.