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Information Filtering July 14, 2007

Posted by Tariq Ahmed in Leadership.
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Like all organizations, even our mighty Empire falls victim to information filtering. Even though my generals know the penalty is death for withholding information from me, they still can’t control the natural organizational urge to filter what reaches the top.

In any organization, it’s very difficult for a CEO to know about everything that’s going on. That’s why they have management. But the same management that is supposed to be helping the organization automatically filters out information, usually “problems” from reaching the top. The more layers of management that are involved, the worse the information filtering becomes. This filtering prevents the CEO and top management from having a pulse on the organization, seeing the true problems and staying connected to the front-line employees.

What gets filtered: Usually negative issues such as problems, failed projects, failed policies, failing managers and any other information including brilliant ideas.. Front-line employees may shake their heads, wondering why “Management” doesn’t understand or act on an issue.

The reasons for filtering are obvious:

1) An issue will arise, and the 1st manager will not escalate it. They may believe the employee is wrong or doesn’t understand the issue. They also may think it’s trivial or believes correctly or incorrectly that their superior doesn’t care and therefore it doesn’t get escalated.

2) Any manager in the hierarchy may feel the problem is their fault since it’s their responsibility and thus they don’t want to admit this error is happening and has happened for so long. It could be a poor purchase, a poor project or a poor HR decision and now that manager is in “CYA” mode for their own benefit and to the detriment of the company.

3) The 1st level manager does escalate it, but through all the management levels, the message gets warped, watered-down or the higher levels of management react like reason #1 or #2.

4) Other variations on the same theme include managers not wanting to “rock the boat” or perhaps protecting their subordinates due to friendship etc. Many others may truly feel top management shouldn’t deal with such trivial issues and that they can handle it. Unfortunately they may not have the ability or power to affect change, especially if the root cause of the issue is other departments that they have no control over. This leads to the classic scenario of the problem being caused by 2 or more departments and each blaming the other for the issue, expecting the other department to fix it. Many mangers may feel they should be team players and directly pointing out incompetence will make them a snitch and seen as not capable of solving it as a team player.

As top management, how do you combat this problem?

1) Get your hands dirty. Unannounced, spend some time preferably working, or observing front-line employees. Listen to their concerns, ask them questions and find out their perspective. It’s very important not to be critical of what you see, and to ensure their comments will be kept in confidence. Not only will your visit be an eye opening experience, but it will also inspire that employee and his/her co-workers that their opinion is important.

2) If you can’t get your hands dirty on a regular basis, then use anonymous surveys with very focused, 1-5 scale answers to get a pulse on front-line employee thoughts and opinions.

3) Make information filtering a meeting topic with your managers and openly discuss it.

These methods aren’t something that is done once and forgotten, it should be in your Outlook calendar on a recurring schedule.

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