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Lateral communication as seen through the eyes of employees.

LATERAL COMMUNICATION as seen through the eyes of employees


During the past few years of restructuring and downsizing, entire layers of management have been eliminated to streamline organizations. The hierarchical pyramid has been flattened to make organizations more effective. Career hopes and individual egos were likewise flattened in this process of continuing change.

Most company press releases explaining the advantages of downsizing and reorganization noted that the elimination of a management layer meant automatic improvements in the communication process. After all, by eliminating one layer of filters, information would move more directly and quickly from senior managers to first-line supervisors.

The intended strategy was to create vertical teams, making employees aware that each department was a profit center with its own goals, a team responsible for results in support of a broader company mission.

How does all this "more-with-less" rationale look through the eyes of employees who survived? Those who remained with the organization, only to discover that work loads are the same, often greater, and they are expected to take up the slack. These survivors soon discovered one of the major problems that evolve from shuffled and reshuffled work groups: the lack of effective lateral communication within all levels of the organization.

The nutshell perception of such employees is: "Why me? And, why all the obviously contrived noise from senior management about improved communication?" That new knowledge is the outcome of our research with client organizations over the past three years, a somewhat surprising focus on compromised lateral information sharing, as viewed by employees at all organizational levels.

The essence of the research feedback is that work schedules and deadlines are missed. Efforts are duplicated. Rework increases manufacturing costs. Product quality suffers. And, interdepartmental relationships (engineering and production, for example) deteriorate badly. The standard employee lament: "We have newsletters, sometimes video, and even quarterly forums for business updates, but the truth is, people here don't talk to each other on a day-to-day basis. Lateral communication is out of sync!"

Generally, employees define lateral communication as "the sharing of information across the organization within departments and between departments." That includes across a room; between shifts--a process continually lacking in many organizations; and among scattered facility locations.

Employee Perceptions About Management, Interdepartmental Relations

The gaps in lateral communication appear to exist at all levels of organizations. Employee perceptions: Even at the top, senior managers do not necessarily share information with each other. They tend to meet a lot as a group, sometimes too frequently, eliminating time for listening and sharing information with their employees. But, senior managers do not really share openly with each other; they do not engage personally in team-building to air and resolve conflicts; and they fail to ensure that lateral communication takes place among their subordinates.

Key employee questions: Do senior executives care about integration of efforts, or do they operate independently to achieve greater personal success? Do senior managers have their own goals clearly defined to the exclusion of the goals of others? Why don't they at least share common goals, values or issues?

Organizations which develop autonomous profit centers tend to isolate group activities and concerns, yet according to employees, the goals in separate departments can be conflicting. In an organization where the corporate mandate was to cut costs, the engineering department made changes for its own convenience which cost manufacturing departments time, manpower and tooling. The marketing staff continued to promote the sales of customized products which boosted gross sales, but which added major costs for manufacturing, accomplishing little for the organization's bottom line.

Other employee perceptions: Turf protection gets expensive. Senior managers in competition for rewards do not want to relinquish power, information or responsibilities because it diminishes their stature. If they take on the concerns of peers, it may adversely affect their own results, even though it could benefit the organization as a whole. In the worst situations, internal competition can lead to passing the blame and finger-pointing, putting pressure on employees at many levels.

In some organizations, departments seem to communicate with each other when a crisis or special problem develops, but otherwise they rarely share information. Their communication process is essentially reactive. Employees, basically interested in their organization's success, ask why information cannot be shared openly at their level, permitting their input in preventing crises, or solving tough problems which ultimately affect them directly.

Employees do not understand the interdependence of the goals, responsibilities and capabilities of other departments, but many would like to. This is evident at all levels of organizations, and usually across all disciplines, according to our study. An employee can spend hours compiling statistics that another employee might have generated in five minutes with an appropriate computer program. Managers unknowingly will make decisions that adversely affect other departments. First-line supervisors, in particular, report that other departments make decisions that affect their operations, but they usually hear about it by accident.

This seems to happen with great frequency in service and support departments--employees in the front office. Some of them do not fully understand what products the company makes or for how long it will continue to make them. Other employees comment: "They've never been told; many have never had a tour of our business. How can they support the efforts of the manufacturing facility when they do not understand the production side of the business?"

When employees are faced with a problem, frequently they do not know which department is responsible. If they know the department, they do not know whom to contact. It can take several calls and hours before they find the right person, at which point the problem has escalated or done its damage.

Employees lack opportunities to build relationships with their fellow employees within their own departments or in other departments. Because they lack understanding and appreciation of the roles of other groups, they do not build respect or trust. Because day-to-day lateral communication is absent, hurried or reactive, it comes across as negative or accusatory. Hence, employees become defensive about issues and they do not support each other. In the worst cases, antagonism rules out positive relationships.

According to surveyed employees, getting response--answers and action--is an issue. They ask questions, but get no answers; or when they do, the information comes too late to be effective. Some employees cited instances when they could go no further on a project without information from a peer in another department. When that information arrived, at the convenience of the peer, it resulted in missed deadlines and having work redone.

The problem works both ways. Employees said that they get requests from other employees who expect them to drop whatever they are working on and respond. Callers do not seem to make an effort to coordinate what they need from other departments or to understand or respect the limitations and priorities of others. Employees are accountable to their bosses and their assignments, not their peers, even though they are all supposed to be working toward the same corporate mission. When involved in these sorts of uncomfortable day-to-day situations, the typical comment is, "Our senior people don't talk to each other; they permit this to happen to us; and we all resent it."

Internal politics reportedly contributes to this issue. Employees' requests for action and answers are ignored unless the request comes from someone at a higher level. So, the link from peer to peer is not a straight line. The link goes from an employee to his/her boss, to the boss of their peer, and down to the employee. The response often takes the same circuitous route. Essential time is lost. More than that, because some senior managers feel usurped if employees communicate laterally without including them, the employee reaction is "they really don't trust me to get the job done."

Extensive research with employees at all levels of several organizations continues to confirm that these factors hinder lateral communication. Senior managers can talk about partnerships, working together, and empowerment, but the systems within their structures and their own behaviors prevent it from happening. Those who need to be convinced should check with their employees in some non-threatening fashion.

Communication vehicles may be set in place, but if filters and hindrances in the organization prevent the flow of lateral information sharing and relationship-building, the communication will be compromised. The truth comes out when the organization experiences a catastrophe. The conclusion: We have a communication problem.

How Communication Can Lead the Way to Better Understanding

Communicators can take a leading role in improving lateral communication in their organizations. The following suggestions can be helpful to champion the process of getting employees to talk to each other across departmental and functional lines.

1. Research

The fundamental step is understanding and recognizing the hindrances which exist in your organization. Know where the gaps are. It will provide the direction of development of your lateral communication process. The hindrances we identified in this article are based on input from several organizations; usually two or three key trends will be apparent in each organization. Ask employees through anonymous surveys about the reality of lateral communication for them on their jobs. The input from employees will help you gain support from senior managers to take action.

2. Senior Management


Change and accountability start at the top. Rest assured, that is the position of your employees. Get senior managers to set the pace in becoming personally involved in lateral communication and supporting other efforts in the organization. Use your researched input from employees to help them understand how the lack of lateral communication affects the business, in terms of quality, productivity, customer service, costs and relationship. Gain their input and support for recommended actions.

3. Ad Hoc Communication Group

Key representatives from each department can become members of a communication "reality check" group, chaired by the appropriate representative from your department. The group will look at the costs of lateral communication lessons learned from past experiences and focus on awareness and prevention processes. It can look forward at planned projects and change and discuss how to set up lateral communication systems to integrate efforts and avoid problems, unnecessary costs and delays. Ask yourself, "If I don't quarterback this effort, who will?"

4. Communication Between

Shifts and Locations

So often different shifts or locations operate as separate entities even though they are dependent on each other for results. Initiate and facilitate a discussion between the managers of shifts and locations to develop solutions that will work. It could be meetings, newsletters, voice mail, electronic mail, one-on-one discussions--but whatever it is, support their ideas and efforts. Periodically measure the effectiveness and suggest adjustments. Generate new discussions as faces and circumstances change.

5. Pilot Project

Based on a business goal, establish a multi-functional team to build communication linkages from the outset. The Ad Hoc Group will be able to suggest an ideal project. A communication department representative will sit in on all project meetings to increase the awareness of the communication implications of plans and changes. The success of the pilot project can pave the way for using a similar approach on other projects and teams.

6. Awareness Training

Employee input from your research will provide guidelines for improving day-to-day lateral information sharing. Do what it takes to get support at the top. Take any wins you can get, and move forward. For example, making employees aware of the importance of feedback, keeping other departments apprised of changes, or being sensitive to their needs might be included in a package distributed to all managers for discussion with their employees. This works well, and is a strong role for communicators. Special articles in your employee publications can highlight successes and problems avoided when departments work together.

7. Understanding Departments

and Disciplines

Profile each department in subsequent issues of employee publications to build understanding of how each department operates, its constraints and challenges. Encourage employee interdepartmental visits. Employees will feel more comfortable sharing pertinent information or asking questions when they have a better understanding of other departments. It may open their eyes to ways they can help each other.

These suggestions are only thought-starters. When you understand the hindrances and advantages in your own organization, your own knowledge and professionalism will initiate the process of building support and developing creative avenues for lateral communication. But, it starts with your own department. We visited a corporate headquarters over several days to get an overview of the effectiveness of communication efforts. An important item on our agenda was visiting the plant located about five miles away. The communication specialist, who had been on the job for eight months, said he would like to join us because he had not had a chance to visit it yet. Maybe that seems incredible only to us.

How well do you understand and work with other departments? Talk to senior managers personally to understand their individual perspectives. Sit in on meetings. Talk to line people and those who travel on behalf of your firm. Consider how important it is to your personal understanding of the organization to be able to see it through the eyes of others. Then, multiply that impact by the number of employees in your organization, and consider the benefits for the entire organization if they all understood more of the interrelationships and perspectives.

According to employees, lateral communication needs a lot of work.

Valorie McClelland and Dick Wilmot, APR, are principals of Wilmot Associates Inc., a San Diego, Calif.-based counseling practice focusing on employee commitment and workplace trust. Wilmot is an IABC Fellow.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on unions
Author:Wilmot, Dick
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Previous Article:Proof at last.
Next Article:Internal communication in Canada.

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