Wake-up call: Your team members probably know less than you think they do.
Ten years ago, I wrote my MA thesis on internal communication at the office of LEGO Australia. I made theoretical as well as real-life discoveries, and my recommendations to the management were well received.
One key finding especially has followed me ever since: what I then dubbed the management blind spot.
It’s not rocket science, it’s social science. And even if it sounds like common sense, I’ve found that the issue is quite pervasive.
The Downside of a Strong Leadership
At the time, LEGO Australia had a very strong leadership team with highly effective weekly meetings for sharing key insights across the board. Every member of the leadership had a great sense of where the business was going.
This made it so much more striking that the feeling did not reflect upon lower levels. One employee told me: “There’s no way we can interact with one another. I assume that the leaders get together and then they share.”
But confronted with a lack of cross-company interaction, a member of the leadership told me: “I don’t understand that, because I work with every part of the company.”
Team leads play a crucial role in sharing information with their teams. But since they are embedded in both the leadership team and in their own teams, they become blind to the perspective of their own teams, and sometimes wrongly assume that their employees have the same knowledge as themselves.
Oblivious or Machiavellian
I’ve seen this situation play out again and again, where especially senior leaders are oblivious to the lack of knowledge at lower levels – knowledge that they themselves are gate-keepers of.
(In one case I have even suspected a manager of actively preventing a free flow of knowledge, for whatever reason.)
Assuming a well-functioning hierarchy, the situation is difficult to avoid. Obviously, the more senior you are the more you should know across the businesses, and conversely less of the details.
But as a manger you should never forget that often your team only knows what you tell them.
Was Blind, But Now I See
What should managers do about it? Most importantly, they should acknowledge their own blind spot, and work actively to mitigate the pitfalls.
My recommendations to LEGO were:
- Identify key relationships and interactions between teams and engage these people in dialogue.
- Set up a “huddle exchange”, where employees on a rotational basis join the team meetings of teams outside their own, to learn more about the business.
- Increase informal interaction (social events, lunch, etc.) to make people more comfortable with each other across teams.
Today I would add that in a less hierarchical, more matrix-like organisation, the issue would be less prevailing, or take a different shape.
Finally, I should add that too much knowledge can be time-consuming, of course not everyone needs to know everything. Need-to-know is a separate topic I will explore later. The point here is awareness: you should know what you know and don’t know. And as a manager especially, you should know what your teams know and don’t know.