January 6, 2010—Oro Valley, AZ— Author and consultant Kevin Herring describes his article, “Plugging the Reality Gap,” as “an opportunity to addresses the all-too-common problem of leaders becoming out of touch with what occurs with customers and in operations. ”
Plugging the Reality Gap
At the end of the year we sometimes find ourselves wondering about somebody we haven’t seen in years. Time and distance seem to make it hard to stay in touch. But being in touch can be just as much a problem between people working in the same general facilities day after day as for old friends swapping Christmas cards across the country. Often, the disconnect shows up in the worst possible ways.
Reality or illusion?
A business that did its own monthly customer satisfaction surveys beamed its high scores to anyone it could reach. The company seemed to be doing so well that the CEO was shocked to get a call one day from a local community leader complaining about absurdly long service wait times. That got the CEO asking questions. It turned out that most employees had a spouse, parent, family member, or someone else with a story. Poor service in that organization was such a problem that locals were making wise cracks about the company. Despite what customer surveys seemed to be saying, everyone but those in the C-suite had been talking about the lousy service the company was providing. Somehow, a gap had emerged between leader perspectives and front-line realities.
Pulling it together
Why the gap? Is it inevitable that there has to be a disconnect between the top and the bottom of any typical hierarchy? Or can some tweaking minimize the distance?
Like the old game where you whisper a message through a chain of people, an organization dependent on word of mouth communications from layer to layer is bound to show similarly sorry results by the time the message hits bottom, that is if it even gets that far. That’s why we’re hearing from some of today’s communications consultants more about communicating directly with employees instead of depending solely on formal, less personal channels. Some are also encouraging leaders to use multiple channels to connect with employees. These days it isn’t too hard to do. Free or inexpensive voice and even video conference calls are available. Intranets, email, internal newsletters and updates on paper or computer make directly communicating easy enough to do. The trick is to use these tools to supplement or enhance, not replace, two-way communications.
Of course, nothing can substitute for good old-fashioned listening for getting closer together. Any leader that can establish a safe environment and compelling motive for core workers to share by sincerely asking and listening, and supporting staff acting on what they learn, will go a long way in building connections between people and functions.
One CFO worked with peers to develop critical measures for success. After explaining the measures to all employees in large group meetings, he regularly posted updated charts showing how the company was performing in each critical area. He also included hourly employees by asking them to report to the rest of the workforce how they were helping to move the trend lines in the right direction. Employees throughout the building felt they were on the same page with upper level management and could ask the right questions in update meetings to stay informed. Employees were included in a way that made them comfortable sharing their experiences. These update meetings did as much to help senior leaders stay connected to shop floor employee experiences as to communicate to the general workforce.
The controller in another organization worked with his staff to develop and present a company-specific business course to all employees. When monthly performance results were shared in newsletters and all-employee meetings, he made sure to explain how the work of hourly production teams influenced the financial results that month. Employees in that company became more focused on team outputs and solving problems in team meetings to improve those outputs. Those simple actions went a long way toward bringing all contributors closer together in their efforts.
Some large organizations have little, if any, reality gap while some small organizations have light-years sized leader-to-shop floor chasms proving that size isn’t the issue. Regardless of size, leaders who consistently engage in two-way dialogue with core workers and create a culture of open communications about day-to-day operating experiences as they relate to the direction of the business will find keeping in touch not so hard to do. As the reality gap shrinks, so will the proximity of contributing employee experiences that will serve to integrate and unify the organization to accomplish its goals.
Trying it on for fit:
Assess your communications to peers and direct reports. Can they trust everything you tell them? Can they take whatever you say “to the bank?” Or do you make sure that what you communicate always puts on the rosiest or safest face you can muster? Conversely, how well do you listen to and encourage employees who share the “bad” news, or say what’s on their minds? Can they really speak freely?
Provide frequent—even monthly—opportunities for senior leaders to interact with employees who produce products, deliver services, and otherwise interact with customers. Create an environment that encourages open sharing by structuring meetings to be dominated by line workers prepared to share their knowledge and solutions including successes and failures. Teach front line supervisors to practice these management methods in their work teams and departments. Use technology to increase and improve two-way dialogue over one-way communications.
Ascent Management Consulting offers in-house consulting, coaching and workshops to leaders and groups to improve work unit productivity.