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Unconventional Wisdom for Contemporary Leaders

„Communication is a sign of dysfunction."

"It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out ways for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.“

Jeff Bezos spelled it out over a decade ago - what are you doing about it?

Stop talking to your employees.

In personal interactions, the scientific consensus is that the message is always being crafted by the receiver.

In business, it is important that messages are being crafted by the sender in a way so that the right information is being sent across.

Speaking is one of the most ineffective ways of transmitting information. It is often unstructured, important details are left out, and even worse, the brains of human recipients literally have a built-in autocomplete function that fills the blanks with content that matches the correctness of a text message we sent while driving.

What you should do instead: Rather than broadcasting spoken updates, send out written summaries of recent developments. Speaking to people about the recent developments is really not helpful. It takes lots of time and oftentimes much of the information is not relevant for the receiver or already known by many.

Instead, send out a document or slide deck with written information. Have a Q&A Session instead of a call in order to share the news.

An interactive session allows the participants to voice their questions and concerns. And you make sure the content of the call goes beyond common sense.

While an intuitive counterargument seems to be that people will attend the call uninformed and won't be able to follow, this will likely only happen the first few times. Having no slides or any other sort of context in the call, people will start being prepared to ask their questions.

Note that introducing this new cadence requires discipline from the leadership to send out the materials at least a day in advance to give people the chance to read up.

Establish Strict Hierarchies.

Top to bottom, bottom to top. The issue with traditional hierarchies is not that there are people that are considered more senior than others. It's that people are promoted and respected not on meritocratic grounds, but for carrying titles.

However, the fact of the matter is: Companies and organizations need structure. Whether it's called a tribe, whether it's self-organizing, or liquid. New organizational models essentially have one aim: Abandon traditional hierarchies that focus on self-manifesting structures. These structures are too prone to give power to individuals that are feeding their ego by being formally assigned to be superior to others.

For competitive organizations today, a better approach to establish a hierarchy is to promote knowledge and contributions to the organizational goals.

The convention of requesting something from some entity "above" ultimately prevents innovation and leaves an organization vulnerable to disruption.

By abandoning formalized communication channels and allowing responsibility and accountability to be more accessible to less experienced people, organizations become more effective and value-focused.

How to put it into practice: A first step towards shifting accountability to less experienced people in your organization is to add a measurable element of people development to the objectives and scorecards of senior colleagues and leaders. Brownbag sessions, internal speeches, guided discussions, 1-on-1s and AMAs are just a few examples for growth-oriented communication that ensures that your most strained resources are not spending lots of time on micro-managing and writing detailed instructions that may be useful for nobody, but to be focused on high-value activities such as people development and coaching others to be more effective.

Establish titles.

Just like organizations, people need structure and a point of reference.

Giving someone a title provides that person with something to identify with. By providing structure around a title by defining the objectives of the role and the expected key results, it is easier for the person taking the role to set their own goals. It makes it harder for middle management to fail.

A simple example: If you have a marketing manager with three team members, responsibilities will naturally evolve. It is an uncontrolled process that potentially leaves people within the team fighting for tasks, roles and responsibilities. By assigning each of the team members with a role such as head of digital marketing, head of event marketing and head of print marketing, everyone knows their domain and what their responsibilities and goals are. This contributes to organizational efficiency in several ways:

  • Internal processes and communication flows are more likely to be efficient in a designed organization than in an organically grown structure

  • Role transitions are much easier to arrange with well-defined roles and scopes

  • Hiring for specific profiles to achieve certain objectives is easier and more transparent

  • Aligning the organization to new priorities and focusing its efforts will happen much quicker because everyone better understands how they can contribute to the strategic goals

Embrace closed doors.

"Open door policies" oftentimes result in leaders being, in theory, approachable, while, in reality, they will rarely have more than a few minutes to spare. Employees that want to utilize the possibility to speak with them become frustrated because the leadership does not live up to their promise. That's because they cannot. By definition, when they are asking to be approached at any time, it is likely that they will be interrupted from doing something when someone is actually trying to speak to them.

How can you as a leader change this? The first step is to be very clear about the fact that you will not be available on demand. Instead, set aside a certain amount of time per week for which your assistant can schedule time with employees for all requests. A second option is to create an actual open-door slot during which your door is, in fact, open. If you are are afraid of wasting an hour a week because no one will seek this opportunity - try it, and if there is really no demand, it may be a good time to find out why. If everyone is truly happy, there should be positive feedback or constructive comments flowing your way. If the demand is just simply low, it is easy to shorten the slot or make your open office hour a fortnightly event to spread demand. If it turns out that the demand is so high that the hour you scheduled is not enough, this may well be the best investment of your time you can possibly think of because you're getting to the bottom of what drives and slows your company.

And finally, if there is no demand and you just can't figure out why no one is checking in with you, there is an ultimate (and really scary) option: you can go to your employees - and ask them.


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