Srikanth Sastry A Techie in Boston

Donts of processes for upward communication

Upward communication critical to organizational well-being and effectiveness. It is also notoriously difficult to get right due to the inherent power/authority differential involved in the hierarchy of any organization. Almost every place that I have seen upward communication done right focuses on mitigating this differential. Unfortunately, many organizations seem to be completely oblivious of how the existing power differential within a hierarchy can jeopardize upward communication.

Does your organization share this blind spot? For obvious reasons, it doesn’t help to ask the organization leaders about a blind spot. However, there are symptoms you can look for. Here are some examples, that I hope will help you see whether and why upward communication is failing in your organization. Note that all my experiences are from the software industry, and so I am focused only on software engineering organizations. So please keep that in mind as you read on.

Here are four IMHO important symptoms to look for.

  • Focusing on the format instead of a well thought out framework
  • Asymmetric commitment from the leadership on communciation
  • No reacting/responding to the contents of the communication
  • Not getting engineers’ buy-in

Format instead of framework

Any sort of ongoing upward communication tends to be only marginally useful if the organization does not have a framework within which the receive and process the communication. For instance, an organization may care about cross team collaboration, and could get information about this from employees through upward communication channels. However, without a framework for the employees to provide that feedback, the organization may not be able to glean much.

Unfortunately, organizations tend to conflate framework with format/template. When this happens you tend to see rigid templates or formats within which upward communication takes place leaving little space for nuance, reflection, and awareness to unforeseen issues. An example should make this clearer.

I worked in an organization which asked employees to fill out a weekly report. This report had mandatory questions such as “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy were you working with other teams?” On the face of it, it might seem reasonable. But consider the following scenario.

An engineer who has had a bad week at work and wants to communicate that upward. She fills out her weekly report outlining her frustrations and why she hasn’t made as much progress and what’s blocking her. She proceeds to submit her feedback, but the tool rejects her submission because she didn’t answer the mandatory question. Effectively, the organization is saying “unless you give the information we seek, in the form that we prescribed, we are not interested in listening to you”.

When scenarios like these repeat themselves often enough, both the organization and the employees end up with blinders on what can and should be communicated. And that creates blind spots in the organization.

Asymmetric commitment for communication

When an organization sets up expectations for upward communication, it is automatically asking its employees to invest time and effort into it. If the organization does make a corresponding commitment on its end, it becomes demotivating for the employees, and any upward communication becomes either perfunctory or severely biased.

I recall a case where senior leadership wanted regular progress updates from all teams, for slightly different audiences and use cases, the content was required to be slightly different. The 'solution' to this issue was that team leads fill out almost identical, but slightly different, contents in an online form, a doc, a presentation, and a spreadsheet so it is all available for senior leadership when they want to review it. This is a really good example of asymmetric commitment. The effort here is expected entirely from the employees, and little from the leadership.

In contrast, I worked in organizations where management and leadership worked on upward communication along multiple avenues depending on how the engineers worked, and how the engineers liked to communicate. There were weekly/monthly sync up meetings where the management and leadership took notes, which the engineers communicated in the manner that was most convenient for them (including just talking, or presentations, or code changes, or screenshots, or even demos). Apart from that, the managers were also always sitting with the teams they supported, paying attention to the chatter among engineers and engaging when they realized some important decision were being made. The mangers participated in the decision making by proving additional context as appropriate, noted the decision that the engineers took, and made it a point to follow up on its execution while making an effort to not be intrusive.

That is an example of the leadership and management demonstrating their commitment to upward communication.

Reaction to upward communication, or the lack thereof

One of the expectations following upward communication is that the leadership with react to the communication, and then follow through on their commitment to address the issues brought into focus. When this redressal and follow through is missing, the impact is palpable and the consequences can be detrimental.

A common example where I have seen this is when the teams are expected to report progress and roadblocks, but the roadblocks are ignored by the leadership with the assumption 'the team will figure it out'. Or worse, at times, the leadership actually does not know what to do, but instead of making that a discussion, they choose to remain silent (for reasons that could constitute its own blog post). I assume I need not elaborate on the negative consequences of that behavior!

In cases where the leadership acts on upward communication, the impact can be dramatic and hugely positive. I recall two distinct cases in two different organizations I worked at, where the entire team had an unfavorable review of their manager. In response, the leadership immediately asked the managers to transition to a non-managerial role and re-org’d the teams so that they can have a different (and hopefully) more effective manager to support them.

Not getting engineers’ buy-in

Any upward communication process that does not get the engineers’ buy-in is bound to have limited success. Interestingly, this precipitates more communication processes that also do not have employee buy-in, and the cycle continues.

In one of the organizations I was at, the leadership, for reasons unknown, determined that a bespoke task tracking/project management tool be used. Very few engineers, if any, liked this tool. Yet, this was the tool of choice and decreed to be so. Not surprisingly, the tool was not well used, and so the leadership did not get the information they were looking for with respect to work done/progress made, etc. In response, the leadership created a new role that was focused on upward communication, and insisted that every team dedicate one person to perform this role. This not only took away one engineer from already resource-constrained teams, it also asked that engineer to execute a role that they weren’t really selected/skilled for. Naturally, that didn’t fare well either. There was improvement in upward communication as far as the leadership was concern, but it was not sufficient. So, the leadership decided that, harkening back to the Industrial Age, all teams should follow the exact same and synchronous development cadence and report progress on that exact cadence of the leadership. This cadence fit some teams better than others, and you can imagine the morale in the teams that ended with the short end of the stick there.

At no point during this entire affair did the leadership actually sit down with the engineers in various teams and actually ask them how the teams like to get work done, and how leadership could work with each team to accomplish the goals of the upward communication that was being sought.