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Are you playing broken telephone with communication?

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 10.31.09 AM Did you ever play broken telephone as a kid?  Well chances are that if you’re working in management today, you’re guilty of playing broken telephone. We recently conducted some research with 500 full time knowledge workers to find out more about this problem of broken telephone. We wanted to figure out how different groups viewed the communication capabilities of their companies. What we found was that broken telephone is a much bigger problem in larger companies and that communication is breaking down somewhere in middle management.

  1. Communication is, for the most part, better in smaller companies than larger ones. This would seem to support the idea that the bigger a company is, the harder and more costly it is to establish more complex lines of communication and the more likely broken telephone is to occur.
  2. Communication is also much better within more senior ranks of a company. Managers and above rate communication ability much more highly than do rank and file employees. This type of result continues to support our proposition that many processes are breaking down somewhere in middle management. Employees are increasingly subject to a game of broken telephone where they don’t know what management wants and management doesn’t know how they’re doing.
  3. What was also very clear from the research was that where communication was seen as good, upper management is more respected than where communication is bad.
  4. And finally, where communication is good, employees are much more proud of where they work.

The conclusions are self-evident. Get better at communicating with rank and file employees and you’ll engender greater respect for management and greater pride in the organization. (And you’ll probably get better results from everyone knowing what they’re supposed to do and you knowing how they’re doing.)

The Research 

To do the research we asked 500 university graduates who are employed full time a variety of questions on their work environment and their job. We created a survey that asked respondents to select between the following responses to a series of questions.

  • Strongly Agree (5);
  • Agree (4);
  • Neither Agree nor Disagree (3);
  • Disagree (2); or
  • Strongly Disagree (1)

The tables below show the results of this research.

Communication is better in smaller companies

1In what shouldn’t be a surprising finding, communication was seen as being better in smaller companies.

This would seem to support the idea that the bigger a company is, the harder and more costly it is to establish more complex lines of communication. Broken telephone is less likely in small companies than in large ones where lines of communication are longer.

 

 

 

Communication is better at the management level

2In another not surprising revelation, communication is better in senior ranks of a company that it is in more junior ranks. Managers and above rate communication ability much more highly than do rank and file employees. Many processes are breaking down somewhere in middle management and employees are not being managed as well as junior managers. Employees are increasingly subject to a game of broken telephone where they don’t know what management wants and management doesn’t know how they’re doing.

 

 

 

The better the communication the more employees respect upper management

3Where things start to get really interesting is when you look at the correlation between respect for upper management and how people feel about communication in a company. Where there is good communication there is good respect for upper management. Whether there is a causal factor at work between these two items is not discernable but there is a high degree of correlation as shown by the chart below.

 

 

 

The better the communication the greater the workplace pride

4And in another unsurprising set of statistics, there is a high degree of correlation between the quality of communication and whether people are proud of where they work. Clearly from these stats it is apparent that communication with employees is highly correlated with their satisfaction about the work environment.

 

 

 

 

Conclusions

These results, while not extensive go a small way to give further credence to our proposition that a company’s ability to implement strategy is breaking down because of the actions of mid-level managers. In study after study, we are seeing that the way management sees their enterprise is not the way the rank and file employees see it. Management is playing broken telephone. First level employees consistently rate trust, communication, motivators, and leadership at levels significantly below that of managers and above. This is clearly showing that management skills are missing at the first level of management and this is putting a company’s ability to execute strategy at risk. If companies want to improve, they’ll have to put more investment into training and managing their junior managers. Without this effort, their plans and directives will fail to be effectively translated to front line employees and strategic initiatives will peter out at their most critical point of inflection, that of where it meets the customer. Our research is supported by research published by the Harvard Business Review, which shows that on average, companies deliver only 63% of the performance that is anticipated in their strategic plans. One problem seen by this study is that less than 15% of companies regularly compare their business performance against their strategic plan. Harvard’s survey demonstrates a sequence of events that causes companies to fail:

  • Strategies are approved but poorly communicated.
  • The lack of communication makes the translation of strategy into specific action all but impossible.
  • Lower levels in an organization don’t know what they need to do, when they need to do it or what resources are required.
  • As a result, expected results never materialize and since management doesn’t review old plans, no one is held accountable for the results and the cycle of underperformance gets repeated.

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