Game of Telephone In C-Suite Leadership

Note: This article contains 1,270 words, with an estimated read time of 5 minutes.

With the current pandemic going on, how effective are employees and leaders with engaging in feedback? Does the C-Suite Leadership have access to accurate information?

For anyone who has dealt with handling feedback from employee to employer, you’ll likely know how frustrating this can be. Employees are expected to be able to get in touch with senior management and company leadership, and talk to them about potential problems within the workplace. At how many businesses, though, does this truly happen effectively?

Game of Telephone

Game of telephone with children to explore how communication works.
As you can imagine, improper suggestions will lead to improper solutions. Click To Tweet

Instead, what we see a lot is a case of Game of Telephone (is an international children’s game, in which the players form a line and the first person in the line whispers a message to the ear of the next person in the line, and so on, until the last player is reached, who announces the message to the entire group. The first person then compares the original message with the final version). What starts out as a totally valid, fair complaint (feedback) from the ground level employee group becomes something else entirely. An employee – or group of employees – will pass on a message to their direct manager, for example. Then, manager will take it to the next level of leadership, passing on the message. The message, though, is slightly more ‘diplomatically worded’ to ensure the C-Suite Leadership does not get annoyed.

This happens on a continuous basis, and by the time it runs through the leadership filter all the way to the top, it’s a whole new complaint. It’s been butchered and altered so much to make the last leader look better at their role than they are, that leaders (C-Suite Leader) get something entirely different than the original problem.

As you can imagine, improper suggestions will lead to improper solutions. Companies are then stuck in a position whereby C-Suite leaders are so feared that each part of the chain of command alters to try and appease them. Naturally, this leaves the people who made the complaint both without a voice and without a fair solution.

Since their complaint is totally different to the one made, by the time it reaches the people who can make change it’s a whole new issue once again. This process, then, is one of the single most frustrating parts about trying to manage, harness and/or improve the accuracy of leadership across the board.

Frustrated employee trying to communicate with C-Suite Leadership

What This Means for Employees

Essentially, forget your complaints. Your complaint might offend someone slightly up the food chain, because your complaint means something they put in place is ineffective. Instead of your leader passing the message on that employees cannot work with what is provided, they do the usual business thing and mislead. They dilute the criticism and make it a little more diplomatic to either avoid offending the C-Suite Leader, or to try and cover themselves.

Some believe they are doing this out of virtuous decision making – to ‘try and protect the employee from saying the wrong thing’ – but instead it just makes the problem worse. Now, when the leader to rank-and-file employees (the lifeblood of any business) passes the news on to their C-Suite Leader, it’s changed entirely. This makes the message less powerful and stops the business from improving in the way that it was supposed to. Why? Because every leader is scared of hurting their own career.

People are scared to correct the leader who is never wrong. Click To Tweet

That’s right; some people in ‘leadership’ today would rather zip up the threat of corporate failure instead of telling one of their own C-Suite Leader that the grand plan envisioned does not really work as it was supposed to.

Now, given that people like to protect themselves first and foremost, this (almost) makes sense. Why would you to go your boss and tell them that “actually, the workforce thinks your ideas are not effective”? – this is only going to get you put down on the list for your insubordination.

The Leaders Are Never Wrong Mindset

The sad thing is that the higher up the chain we go, the decision makers are so convinced they are always right that nothing ever changes. With people scared to correct the leader who is never wrong, companies fall into a damning inertia whereby a culture of fear leads to diluted messages.

When the C-Suite leader is wrong and going off the cliff

A Depressing Scenario

  1. You walk into the office, having gathered enough complaints from your colleagues and fellow professionals on various levels of the company. You turn to your next-up leader, and pass on the message of complaint that you hope the C-Suite Leader will listen to coming from a leader.
  2. You have let the leader know that a soon to be ratified product is out of date before it has even hit the shelves. Your prime competitor has come up with something more efficient, more flexible and more affordable. Without recommended changes from the employee being implemented, the project is a certain failure.
  3. The supervisor quakes in their boots, passing on the message one story up in terms of authority. Instead of telling the Leader the blunt truth, though, it becomes dressed up. They add in a few qualifying remarks and fail-safes to avoid anyone above them having to actually look at their own role in the failure.
  4. Then, this is passed up to the C-Suite level. Again, more changes are made and more edits allowed to the story in a bid to avoid offending the swollen ego of any C-Suite Leader. Now, instead of telling them the whole thing needs to be scrapped and modernized to meet market plans, it’s only one little feature that should be added to the product.
  5. So, the top of the table at the company – the C-Suite leader – will be very happy to have found that, in fact, contrary to rumour, only one tiny addition is now needed to make it better than all the competitors.
  6. The tiny change is made, and the project is a crushing failure. The employees are blamed for not being able to live up to scratch, and those who made the first complaint are punished for ‘not seeing the problem’. You are now unemployed, having been the fall-guy for your superior who was too scared to relay your request adequately.

What The C-Suite Leader Can Do

So, basically, companies need to be more open to the idea of actually listening to the people who make them a profit. Employees deserve more credit than they get; the engineers, manufacturers, shop floor workers and staff are the ones who can see the true potential for success and failure for a particular product or service.

Do you have a program in place that allows every level of the organization access to provide feedback? Does your leadership team truly understand the value of NOT filtering the message on the way to the C-Suite leader?

The Bottom Line

The more leaders are allowed to believe they are only a few degrees short of perfection – not 180 degrees, or more – the less likely it is that warnings will be heeded, and the less likely it is that those who made the complaint will be able to produce at the level expected.

If your business suffers from these Game of Telephone cultures, then you need to remove the fear of speaking up or forever watch ego and appeasement derail any opportunity for change and improvement otherwise.

Kyle Kalloo is the Chief Executive Officer and Business Coach with Change My Life Coaching, Co-Founder of Change My Business Coaching and creator of the Get Profitable, Get Productive (GP2) Business Success System. Through his management training and experience with McDonalds, Famous Players (Paramount) and WestJet, and with the ongoing learning and development he’s completed, Kyle has refined and perfected business success skills. He is eager to share how to execute them efficiently to help individuals and companies achieve even more of their dreams and create lasting change. 83% of Kyle’s business comes from referrals.

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