Why Top Down Communication is Vital

August 15, 2018
The prevailing wind in Silicon Valley is that everything you do must be democratic. Now, I love democracy. Like Winston Churchill said: Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others. But democracy is messy. And business isn’t government. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about democracy and collaboration in the workplace. I believe that top-down communication is getting a bad rap. There, I said it. If you are a senior-level executive, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen, first-hand, the limits to collaboration. There are inherent problems to decision-making by committee. In my experience, collaboration works only when there is a clear goal. And it will fall short when that goal isn’t well-articulated. There’s a mountain of organizational psychology research on this topic about why high-performing teams function well and why other teams don’t. Time and time again, it’s been shown that there must always be a leader and there must be well-defined goals. And the roles on the team must be clearly articulated. So, when I talk to my team, I start by clearly addressing our goals and clarifying the roles. Then it’s mad collaboration. It’s awesome! It happens because there’s a clear understanding of purpose, mission and everyone’s role on the team. It makes everyone incredibly creative and driven because they feel comfortable and safe in their roles. And they should be using any software collaboration tool they can to help them do it. But top-down communication was needed to set and convey those clear goal. That’s because a lot of the tools that teams use to collaborate are noisy. It’s not a good place to be clarifying and reinforcing goals. Now I realize, and I welcome, the movement in business toward greater collaboration. I welcome the use of technology to enable collaboration that spans location and time zones. I think it’s terrific. But meaningful collaboration can only happen once you define a clear purpose and everyone on the team can understand it, access it and can review it. That’s where top-down communication gets a bad rap. It seems to me that we shouldn’t be trying to articulate goals at the same time and in the same place where the creative collaboration is happening. That’s because collaboration is messy. Now that leads to great creativity, but goals can’t be messy. Goals have to be crisp. They have to be clear and understood by all. Otherwise, collaborators don’t know where they’re going. Collaboration should be about how to get there, not about what are we trying to do. So, top-down communication is critical. This is leadership. You have to lead and say: This is where we need to go. My experience is that collaborators hunger for clear direction. We all want clarity of purpose – at any level of an organization. We all want to understand where we’re going and what the goal is. We want to deeply appreciate how our individual effort contributes to the goal. Leadership needs to ask everyone to give their best effort to get us there. Workplaces should be open. Collaborative. Everyone has a voice. When you’re articulating goals, there should be opportunities to offer input. Good strategy teams do that regularly. But leaders also bring context that isn’t visible to everybody on the team. That’s why leaders end up setting the goals. They’re looking long term at a big picture and specifying that this is the direction where we’re going to be moving. And once that goal has been decided, it needs to be communicated over and over again. Research has shown that you need to hear things at least 11 times before you start to remember it. It’s not what you tell your team. It’s what they hear – and then what they repeat so they can share it with their colleagues. And then the goal might even need to be defended. Why is this the right goal? Finally, there needs to be clear milestones – moments where we can check that we’re advancing toward the goal.
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