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Communicating Up

When we think about leadership communications, we often assume a downward flow of messages from the leader along with a bubbling up of messages from an engaged audience or individual. This communications loop from leader to followers and back again is not the whole story. Leaders also need to communicate upward. The recipient of such messages may be the leader's boss, a company director, or sometimes an advisory committee. These messages, like other forms of leadership communications, are grounded in the culture of the organization and are about significant issues related to vision, mission, and transformation. Likewise the purpose of upward leadership communications is the same: to build trust and drive results.

In his book Leading Up, Michael Useem describes examples in which leaders in subordinate positions strive to do the right thing. General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the U.N. troops in Rwanda, tried unsuccessfully to persuade his superiors, both military and civilian, to allow him to take aggressive military action to head off the threat of genocide. It was to no avail, as the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsi began a genocidal attack on each other; more than 800,000 people died during the bloodbath.[3] Charlene Barshefsky, as principal U.S. trade deputy, negotiated a trade deal between the United States and China that both permitted the latter's entry into the World Trade Organization and integrated the myriad special interests on the U.S. side, including those of business and labor. In other words, it was a job that balanced both negotiation skill and salesmanship.[4] Both Dallaire and Barshefsky employed effective communications; sadly, only one of the two succeeded. And there is a lesson in this. Leaders will not always succeed, but they must always communicate. And through the continual practice of communications, they will improve their likelihood of success down the line. When communicating up, it is wise to keep these points in mind:

  • Keep everyone on the same page. People deserve to know what is going on. Leaders at the top often feel isolated from what is happening at the grassroots level, either with customers or with front-line employees, because they are shielded from it, either by layers of bureaucracy or by sheer negligence. The leader who keeps the boss informed is keeping the boss in the loop.

  • Separate facts from passion. Facts are neutral; they tell what happened. Opinions color. When giving information, leaders owe it to themselves and to their listeners to keep their convictions separate from the facts. Let the facts speak for themselves. Good leaders know when to express a point of view and when to let the facts stand.

  • Sell when necessary. Leaders have a point of view; it is part of their position of authority. When they believe something strongly, they will try to persuade others. It is perfectly acceptable, on most occasions, to share a point of view. But when expressing this point of view, frame it as such. In this way, the boss receiving the message will know what's fact and what's opinion.

  • Read the signs. Keep the antennae up. Listen to what senior leadership is saying, or not saying. Often what is not said or expressed is as important as the words. Leaders who are communicating upward need to know how both the leader at the top and the leaders in the middle feel about the issues. Such knowledge allows the leader who is communicating upward to know how she or he must shape the message.

Upward leadership communications serve another purpose: They create a culture of dialogue and discussion. When employees see their bosses communicating regularly with their own managers, they soon learn that communications is integral to the leadership process. And while individual requests may not be granted or goals be met, the process of communications never ceases.

[3]Michael Useem, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win (New York: Crown Business, 2001), pp. 74-114.

[4]Ibid., pp. 212-247.

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