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Why good efforts fail in execution: five cascading communications drop-offs to avoid

The conference room. The classroom. The living room. No matter where you look, you may notice poor communications. That can include a lack of communications, poorly crafted communications that don’t take the audience into account, and communications that are far too one-way.

It’s frustrating.

Poor communications from the top of an organization can be more than frustrating. They can be downright destructive.

Imagine this:

The top executive and her top five team members agree on a major change in human resource policy that will impact everyone in the organization. The team members leave the meeting saying they will communicate the team’s decision. Then:

Team member #1: Tells his staff the decision in one sentence and that he actually didn’t agree with the policy change in the first place but that “she’s the boss.”

Team member #2: Tells two of her closest staff members but forgets to share a couple of key points like the rationale behind the decision, the other options considered, and the next steps.

Team member #3: Doesn’t tell any of his staff because he is slammed preparing to leave on a two-week vacation and he neglects to ask his second-in-command to follow up.

Team member #4: Does a fantastic job telling her staff and asks them to relay the information to their staffs. But she is unable to answer their questions about the details of the decision and so she tells her staff to just avoid those questions if they receive them from their staff members.

Team member #5: Relays the message with the right amount of detail about the specifics including rationale and implementation—specifically what is required of each person to implement the decision. Provides her staff with bullet points to use to relay to their staffs and asks them to do it in the next two days. Asks what questions they predict and helps answer them. Tells them they can send any other questions to her and she schedules a follow-up session to answer those questions and any others.

You guessed it. In this scenario 20% of the organization is well-informed, approximately 30% is uninformed, and the remaining 50% is poorly informed. (Go ahead, check my math. It’s just a fictional scenario, after all.)

The communication cascade: cementing commitment?

Sound familiar? The communications cascade is a great idea. In execution, however, sometimes it breaks down almost immediately and actually works counter to both communication and clarity of commitment.

Patrick Lencioni, author of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, advocates for cascading communications from the executive team to provide clarity and illustrate commitment. He believes that members of an executive team should leave meetings and communicate key messages to their teams within 24 to 48 hours. That information then is cascaded down by those leaders to their teams until it reaches most, if not all, of the people in the organization.

I am a huge Lencioni fan and I understand his intent: Asking leaders to communicate sometimes difficult decisions is a sign of commitment. The team members can’t hide behind saying “the boss” made the decision if they are communicating it themselves to their teams. The idea of quick communication throughout the organization is important, as well. Unequal information leaves a vacuum that the rumor mill often fills—and almost always badly.

However, cascading communication isn’t without its potential slippery spots and even naysayers.

Don’t drown in the cascade: five obstacles to avoid

Here are five major ways the communications cascade can break down:

  1. The original message is not crafted clearly and consistently. Often,leaders opt not to take the few minutes at the end of a meeting to agree on specific messages to share outside the meeting. And how many of us have literally sat next to a person throughout the meeting and yet left with widely different recollections? I know I have. Leaders who don’t invest those few minutes at the end of meetings end up sharing divergent messages that confuse and confound people.
  1. The message is mangled along the way. Everyone’s played the telephone game, where a person at one end of the line is given a message that is whispered from person to person until it gets to the last person. It never sounds the same. Even though that was a fun game in grade school camp, it’s less amusing in the workplace and yet all too prevalent. One study found that about two-thirds of senior managers say their organizations explain major decisions well but that percentage drops as the message is communicated down the organization. Only one-third of front-line employees say the company explains major decisions well. Sometimes the messenger doesn’t take into account their audience and creates a long, complicated message that isn’t easy to understand.
  1. The cascade just stops at one level. Sometimesthe cascade just stops flowing in multi-level organizations. That might be because of absentees like the team member in the scenario who was leaving on vacation and doesn’t fill the gap. Other times, leaders may forget or feels it’s not their job to communicate messages that may be less than warmly received. Either way, people don’t get the message or hear the grapevine version, which is usually laced with misperceptions, opinions masquerading as facts, and missed information.
  1. Leaders can’t effectively communicate. People who weren’t part of the decision-making process often have difficulty accurately relaying messages. Even with speaking points, they may find it hard to stay on message—especially if they aren’t privy to the rationale behind the decision. They may also be unable to answer questions from their teams. That may put them in an awkward position if they feel like they can’t say “I don’t know” and, worse, if they hazard a guess.
  1. There is no feedback loop for staff. Without a way to gather staff feedback, it is hard to tell whether the message in a communication cascade has actually been received or received with any clarity. Unlike catch ball, it is a quick way to communicate but does not always invite meaningful two-way communication. Because it can feel less inviting, it may actually work counter to employee engagement.

Best of both worlds: the life preserver for the communication cascade

So, what’s the answer? In a nutshell: cascade communications but back it up with other organization-wide and consistent messaging like a webinar, intranet post, or email message.

I’m not advocating for relying on electronic means to communicate with staff about major changes. They are too impersonal. And they may be ignored. In fact, we all know that too many emails can make electronic communications just so much noise. However, I do think there is a place for using other communication methods to backstop face-to-face communications.

Worth a try?

I like the thought of using face-to-face communications to provide context and answer questions after information has been consistently relayed through print/electronic communications to reduce the loss of information in multi-level organizations. Alternately, leaders can offer electronic communications immediately after a communication cascade has occurred to reinforce a message, clear up anything that has been relayed incorrectly, and fill in the gaps in the communication cascade.

And take heart: Communication is an art and there is no perfect answer. You rarely hear, “Communications are excellent here!” You’ll write the perfect message that no one will read. You’ll hold an employee listening session and no one will come. You’ll cascade communications and still run into someone on the frontline who hasn’t heard the news. Keep going.

Read this article for 9 tips for an effective communication cascade strategy.

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Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.