I’ve just watched, again, an episode in the Back to the Floor television series, which aired on the BBC (United Kingdom) and PBS (United States). Once more, communication turned out to be a key issue, as it often does in business stories.
If you’re not familiar with the series, it features real-life CEOs who leave their comfortable offices (well sort of comfortable, these days) and go work on the front lines of their organizations for a week. Cameras follow the CEOs and record their interactions with staff, and their responses to those interactions. In this episode, the managing director of London’s Heathrow Airport took the plunge and worked in customer service for five days. That meant facing customers and dealing with their problems, including problems created by the airport.
Once more, we saw a CEO suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, so to speak. This CEO was rebuked by employees on the front lines, as well as customers. Employees tried to convey to him the difficulties they experience because no one at head office listens to them.
And, that’s a fairly constant refrain in all episodes, as one CEO after another finds out he or she doesn’t know much about what happens when the organization comes face-to-face with real customers and their needs. As most of us know, this is no anomaly. In many organizations, employees feel management doesn’t know what’s going on in the real world, and perhaps what’s worse, feel that management doesn’t care. In some senses, this perception reflects a divide in the abstract-concrete spectrum. Workers deal in very concrete situations and matters; management deals in abstractions. That’s both logical and appropriate, even if it does keep each side from understanding the other.
Management simply can’t function effectively if it gets bogged down in details or specifics. Nor can it make important decisions if it stops to consider how each decision will affect individual persons in the organization. Still, there’s much management can do to bridge the divide. And the first step in that process is for management to accept responsibility for better communication. Unless management takes the initiative, there’s no way for communication up and down the hierarchy to take place. After all, employees can — and often do — express their ideas and emotions. But nothing can happen unless someone in management allows it to happen.
For example, in the Heathrow program, the managing director spots some trash in an out-of-the-way spot and calls in a cleanup crew. The customer service manager, who supervised the managing director for the week, chastised him for incurring an expense that wasn’t in the budget (an appropriate response because the customer service manager would be chastised by his immediate superior if he had done that). The CEO responded by making an important policy change on the spot, yet what he really needed was a mechanism to get and give information about such problems, and a policy about when exceptions could be made.
By creating a mechanism that allowed workers at the front lines to communicate about that kind of problem (trash), he would get both results and greater employee loyalty.