Organizational Game of Telephone

Organizations that rely on top-down communication risk playing a company-wide game of telephone.

Remember the childhood game of "telephone" (or Chinese Whispers outside of the U.S.)? The one where you told one person a message, then they relayed that to the next, then to another person, then another. Until finally the last person gets the message and repeats it to the first person in the chain.

Usually, by the time the message reaches the second or third person in the chain, the message is barely recognizable from what the first person said. By the end, the message has completely changed.

Importantly, it's not just basic factual conversations that are at-risk of being misheard. Key decisions that depend too heavily on top-down management can be misinterpreted, or worse, harmfully delayed (even to the point that they're no longer relevant when they're heard).

Town Halls – the solution?

Savvy companies have recognized the pitfalls of relying on a trickle-down approach to communication. Some have instituted company-wide town hall meetings where everybody from the VP of Engineering to Janice from marketing goes to hear the same words from the CEO and COO.

Town halls and other forms of mass communication can be powerful tools of alignment in your organization. However, when designing a strategy for alignment, it's important to think about the nuts and bolts of that solution; simply scheduling a company-wide town hall meeting is not enough.

The challenges with mass communication

Pay careful attention to your audience when designing a strategy for mass communication. Not everybody is at the same level of comprehension or understanding as your leadership team. Most communication relies on preexisting knowledge of facts and understanding about the situation at hand. Conversations, in turn, take shortcuts to conserve time and energy: a lot of assumptions of knowledge and understanding are made.

Next time you're part of a town hall meeting (but not leading it), pay particular attention to the body language of people in the room. If it's like any of the town halls I've been part of, you'll notice that some people are engaged in the conversation while others are likely disengaged and wondering why they're there.

It's likely not them. Even a seemingly intuitive idea can be completely misunderstood when the dots are not drawn explicitly. For individuals in your organization that were not part of the original conversation - or are unfamiliar with the issues at hand - the conversation can sound like a foreign language.

Even those who try to be engaged will run into issues trying to make sense of the discussion. It's less of a "what's in it for me" and more of a "how do I impact this outcome and how would that look?"

Top down communication

On the opposite end of the spectrum from town hall meetings, which strive to be direct between the top and the bottom, is top-down communication. This is the modus operandi for communication in many larger organizations. It essential looks like this:

  1. The CEO shares something with their executive team.
  2. The executive team shares it with the VPs.
  3. The VPs share it with directors and the directors share it with managers.
  4. Managers share that information with front-line people.

The number of steps in the chain depend on the number of layers in the company's organization chart. This is where the "telephone game" starts to take form: at each step in the chain, the message is slightly altered and changed. By the time the message gets to the last person in the chain, it can be very different from the original.

Not only is is inaccurate, but relying too heavily on top-down communication is:

  • Slow
  • Unreliable
  • Prone to become unclear
  • Not guaranteed to reach key people

In many cases, the dependence on top-down communication (and decision making) becomes a serious impediment to an organization's ability to be responsive to external actions. When it comes to interactions with key customers, slow communication can be fatal to a relationship built on trust. This problem is even more acute when the response to a customer is impersonal and deflects the blame; none of your customers want to hear (or will believe you when they hear):

Please accept our sincere apologies for your disappointment with our service. It is always our highest priority to ensure that all of our guests leave happy and satisfied.

Likewise, slow communication with internal stakeholders about information on how to respond to changes in the competitive and technological landscapes can also stifle innovation and impinge on a necessary response.

Don't flatten all communication

Although top-down communication has numerous problems, simply moving to a model where all important communication is shared in a single forum is equally problematic.

If you've ever been in a crowded restaurant or bar, you'll probably notice that as more people enter the room, the bar gets louder. In order to compensate, you'll raise your voice so other people can hear you. At some point, you'll find hearing so difficult, you may only understand every few words. Any practical conversation will be near impossible in that environment.

The Lombard Effect, which describes the tendency of speakers to get louder to compensate in an already loud environment, to the point where nobody can hear, can easily happen in a single forum that is saturated with information.

One simple solution is to reduce the volume of communication to only the most salient bits of information. Make it actionable, memorable, and simple. Treat mass communication in your company the same as educational programming. Consider applying research into pedagogy to your communication strategy; things like multi-modal communication (e.g. visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning) can be invaluable in ensuring understanding.