When our company was in its early days, open communication was easy. All anyone had to do was shout to someone a few desks down or look for them at the weekly ping-pong game. Now that we have hundreds of employees, things are different. Communication takes a bit more effort, and staying connected becomes more of a challenge.
Tools like email and instant messaging can help bridge this gap. So can regular meetings (when done effectively). But for leaders of growing companies, it's still easy to go for long stretches only interacting with your inner circle of senior advisers.
This can lead to one of the most dangerous situations leaders can find themselves in: the echo chamber. In this type of environment, it's often only the ideas that coincide with your own which reverberate. Instead of gaining new information, you reinforce your existing beliefs and preconceived notions.
This leads to a loss of perspective. You lose the opportunity to gain a clear picture about what's working and what can be improved. And considering you and your senior leadership team are probably not on the front lines talking to customers, it can be impossible to accurately assess their needs.
The echo chamber also makes it more difficult for you to do one of your primary duties -- championing your company's mission and values. As a leader, part of your job is to constantly remind people why they come to work every day. You also must be alert to any problems that could threaten the business. It's impossible to do this from inside a bubble.
These are four things I try to do to avoid the echo chamber effect:
1. Ask for feedback.
Research has shown that leaders who rank highest in overall effectiveness also rank highly in asking for feedback. In my own experience, regularly seeking out feedback from many different people has made me a better leader. It allows me to gather information that helps me make better decisions and stop bad habits, and demonstrates the type of open, collaborative environment I am trying to create.
Asking for feedback can be as simple as adding an extra sentence to an email asking the recipients for their thoughts. Or shooting off a quick email as you finish a presentation to a few people in the audience. Of course, these informal requests for feedback should be accompanied by more structured opportunities, such as regular performance reviews.
The key is to not just seek out feedback, but to listen. Ask follow-up questions, and show that you've worked on areas that need improvement. If you ask for feedback and then ignore it entirely, it will send a message that could be worse than never asking for the feedback altogether.
2. Break down communication chains.
Elon Musk once called the "chain of command" communications model, where junior team members can only send information upward through their managers, "incredibly dumb."
"Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company," he wrote.
This kind of flat structure fosters efficiency while helping to kill the echo chamber. As a leader, it's your duty to encourage the open flow of ideas by listening and being accessible.
One way to facilitate this is with an open-door policy. Even better, do away with offices altogether and situate your desk with everyone else's. Senior leaders at our company also host office hours, where anyone can drop in to chat 1-on-1 about anything on their minds.
3. Join in.
Some of the most effective, yet overlooked, opportunities to connect with people across all parts of the organization are informal.
Make an effort to join in on celebrations, team outings, clubs, and other social activities, when you think it would be appropriate to make an appearance. There aren't enough hours in the day to attend every event, so pick a handful that you will personally enjoy.
This allows for the kind of unstructured, casual and quick conversations with people of all levels that can lead to some really useful insights. It also shows the team that you're not a corporate automaton, and creates a bond that can help in the future when more difficult conversations need to be had.
4. Host dialogues.
The employee town hall has become a fact of life at many large companies, and it's one of the most effective ways for leaders to communicate with their teams. Even if you aren't running a 1,000-person company, it's a good idea to gather your team together regularly to keep everyone informed and motivated.
At our company, we do an all-office stand-up weekly, an informal Q&A monthly, and a more formal, global update quarterly. Your needs may vary, but the important thing is to update everyone regularly and to be transparent. Discuss what's been working as well as what isn't. Don't shy away from difficult topics -- confront them head-on, so everyone can understand the context and learn from them. Keep them brief, and ensure you aren't the only one doing all the talking. And most importantly, give people the chance to ask questions about the issues that matter to them.
Building a culture of transparency should be a focus for every leader, particularly those heading rapidly scaling companies. Put simply, it helps everyone do their jobs better. There's no magic formula, but simply striving to avoid the echo chamber effect can go a long way.