Maintain a Healthy Dose of Skepticism about Upward Communication


“I am frustrated!” a manager said.

“What is the issue?” I asked.

“We are implementing a significant software upgrade.  Every week, I meet with the project team to discuss issues and challenges.  Toward the end of each meeting, I make a big point about schedule and ask each team member to ensure me that we are on schedule.”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “All along, your team has confidently reported that they are on schedule.  But as the deadline approached, team members started describing “unexpected” occurrences and began asking for more time.”

“Exactly!”

While managers anguish over messaging and rumors, researchers Triandis and Gelfand report that upward communication contains more distortions than other directions.

While dealing with upward communication about complicated matters may be akin to wrestling with an eel, some managers erect unnecessary barriers by reacting negatively when they get bad news.  Employees sense this quickly and often stretch the data to avoid riling their leaders.

So what is the cure?  First, always treat employees with dignity and respect.  Second, when mistakes do occur, conduct an autopsy but avoid blame.  Third, drill down with question after question after question.  Insist on data, documentation and other support.