Does Authority Lead to Reduced Communication?

Having authority can contribute to the very problems managers believe are solved by that authority.  Why, because when managers have authority they don’t think they need to communicate as much.  This is particularly true when managers confront threats to the successful completion of projects they are managing.

Years of research indicates that managers who have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., pay, job assignments, vacation time) assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessment of a situation.  Managers are often blind to the fact that subordinates see things from a different point of view.  According to a recent study published in Organization Science, one result of this blindness is that when managers with authority confront a threat to the successful completion of a project, they engage in fewer and less immediate (e.g., face to face) communications than managers lacking that same authority.

In reviewing the results of the study, what is particularly interesting is that when compared to their counterparts without authority, managers with authority do not engage in Understanding Conversations or use complete Performance Conversations.  The study indicates that managers with authority do not explain why a particular event is a threat, explore how it might be resolved, or address subordinates’ concerns regarding the impact changing their work to resolve the threat may have on other work (an Understanding Conversation).  Furthermore, rather than get good promises from their subordinates, they assume their subordinates will “just do it”.  Unfortunately, 72% of the time the managers’ communications regarding a threat are ineffective and their subordinates do not respond as expected, requiring additional communication.  This additional communication can result in a loss of credibility and diminish their reputation.

One conclusion from this study is that managers use authority as an excuse for reducing their communication on the assumption that their subordinates will automatically accept what they are told and act accordingly.  We know from our work with The Four Conversations, however, that there is no substitute for appropriate and complete communication.

Want More Credibility? Own Up and Apologize

Credibility is essential to being an effective leader.  One of the most powerful ways to build credibility is to own up to something that didn’t work and apologize for it.

When Ed Koch was mayor of New York, he was concerned about the number of accidents resulting from bikers darting in and out of traffic. Determined to solve the problem, he had “bike lanes” painted on the sides of city streets. But instead of making things better, the bike lanes actually made things worse. Drivers, undeterred by the double yellow lines identifying bike lanes, crossed them so frequently that police could not write enough tickets, and accidents involving bikers increased. As a result, Mayor Koch had the bike lanes removed, ending a futile exercise that cost the city millions of dollars.

Plenty of editorial space was given to criticizing the blunder and Koch’s poor judgment. Reporters, looking for blood, sought interviews with the beleaguered mayor. In one television interview he agreed to, which was scheduled to last thirty minutes, the host was armed with a list of questions that were sure to make Koch look bad. The host began by asking, “Mayor Koch, you spent millions of taxpayer dollars to paint those bike lanes only to remove them. That tax money could have gone to valuable social services. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Pausing, Mayor Koch replied, “You’re absolutely right. It was a huge mistake. I made the wrong decision, and I apologize.” The host, stunned by the mayor’s response, gathered herself and proceeded through her list of questions, each of which was an accusation of some kind. To each accusation, Mayor Koch gave a similar response, admitting the mistake and apologizing for it. The interview lasted for only five of the scheduled thirty minutes after which the topic was dropped, never to be raised again.

Mayor Koch’s success in this interview demonstrates the power of what we call Closure Conversations. By acknowledging the facts that New Yorkers already knew—that the bike lanes were an idea that didn’t work—and then apologizing for it, Mayor Koch completely disarmed the issue and brought it to a close. In the process, he restored some of his credibility and the confidence New Yorkers had lost in his stewardship of the city.

Closure Conversations can restore credibility and confidence, reduce resentment, build accomplishment and accountability, add velocity to projects, and increase the engagement of participants and potential participants.  Try them – they work.

[From “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, p. 131-2]