Open Communication Upward Relies on a Balance of Power
In verbally abusive relationships, encouraging the victim to clearly explain to the abuser why they feel mistreated actually makes the sufferer endure more vulnerability and rejection.
When a disparity in power exists, candid and open communication can oftentimes make things much worse. The same is true in the workplace.
We like to think that more honest communication in all directions, including upward, creates a positive and collaborative work climate. But this is only true when those with status engage like peers and don’t punish people for what they learn.
To be effective, open and candid communication upward depends upon a relatively even balance of power. The idea that everyone always benefits from a candid and open exchange of information and viewpoints simply isn’t true. Yet, organizational experts often push that view to the detriment of those without power.
This is not to say that the goal isn’t to construct a team culture where communication is unrestrained and feedback travels up and down with ease. In great teams and organizations, both good and bad news move at the same speed in every direction.
The key is to understand that the issues of power and status come first. Leaders must first create a balance of influence before they open up the pipes and encourage messages of any kind to move freely across the team.
Eliminating the trappings of status and engaging the team in a peer-like style encourages team members to share upward what they really think. Thinking about the implicit demonstrations of leader status is a good place to start. While some displays of status are healthy and reaffirm the social order, great leaders work hard to minimize the “specialness” of their own position. They level the playing field.
When leaders exclusively claim the head of every table, park in reserved spaces, conduct meetings in private conference rooms, dine in privileged locations, and use more expensive technology, among many other examples, they project a status that makes open communication too dangerous for those below.
The more leaders fight off status, the more candid those below will become. Great leaders don’t clutch at power and status, they distribute it to others so that honesty can spread its wings.