As a chief executive or as a senior manager, you will want to know the health of your organisation. You will want to know if the organisation can carry out your vision. Are staff engaged with the company? Will they give a discretionary effort, an effort beyond their job description? Many companies turn to consultants for this work and they measure how well the vision and effort align. Inside the company, senior managers might use employee surveys or focus groups for the same purpose. However, there is an inherent risk with these tools and techniques.
The risk is that the employees will say what they think or know that senior management want to hear. If an organisation has few systems for critical upwards communication, then bad news, or news that challenges the perceived status quo, will not be volunteered through these methods. The employees will see these efforts for what they are; an attempt to elicit good news, and not what they are intended to achieve; an attempt to assess the company’s health. The employee will either game the responses, say what they think the senior managers want to hear, or avoid the topic. If they speak candidly, they may find their opinions discounted.
I only listen if you tell me good news
In the worst possible scenario, for the health of an organisation, two effects converge. The first is the automatic vigilance effect. Here senior managers reject any news that does not confirm their position. The second is the ingratiation effect. Here subordinates exaggerate their agreement with senior managers. When these combine, it can destroy a company. As Denis Tourish explained in his excellent work on critical upwards communication, such an organisation is waiting to fail. The organisation is unaware of the problems within it, even if each manager know the problems. In part, this occurs because even the best managers are susceptible to confirmation bias. They will look for evidence that supports their views and discount the evidence that disagrees.
Despite these hurdles, a tool will let you check the health of your organisation in an unbiased way- a fire alarm drill.
A fire alarm is a mirror on an organisation’s soul
My suggestion may sound counter intuitive. The drill is practiced and everyone knows how it works. How will that show us anything about the health of the organisation? I would ask that you consider the following.
First, all employees take part at the same time. Unlike a focus group or an employee survey, you do not have to worry about a sample size.
Second, the drill shows you an activity that all parts of the organisation, will have practiced and have been instructed on how to complete it. You can compare how different teams, services, and departments complete it.
Third, the drill avoids the ingratiation effect or the automatic vigilance effect. Either the employees complete the task and followed instructions or they don’t. They cannot hide the bad news.
Finally, if employees exit in an orderly manner you know they are well trained. Do they go to the right rally point; have they brought their roll call lists? Are senior managers leading by example, going to the rally point, and support the company’s fire marshals?
Through a fire alarm drill, all parts of a company show their ability to complete the task. Do some teams talk a good game about leadership, teamwork and delivery, but are unable to deliver it when it matters? A better-organised team will likely perform better. However, if a team says they are organised and work as a team, but respond to the fire alarm with poor teamwork, poor leadership, and poor communication, then there is a gap between promise and performance. If employees are not well managed in a life or death issue, how will they handle the routine tasks? If the senior managers are not leading by example, on a life or death issue, what does it tell staff about management’s commitment to its employees?
Do senior managers lead by example?
The drill can also allow a chief executive (and the staff) to assess the senior managers. If the senior managers are not at the rally point are they leading by example? If they cannot lead by example, how can you expect staff to follow them? If the staff mill about the entrance rather than going to the rally point, who is leading them? The exercise will let you see whether corporate communication and training filter through the company. If the senior managers and middle managers cannot train their staff on the fire drill, how can they expect them to deliver the vision and deliver discretionary work?
The fire alarm can also alert you to some other danger signals. As a chief executive, if you find senior managers yelling at the fire safety officer about a drill in the cold, in the rain or in the middle of the day, you can see a problem with responsibility. Fires do not occur on schedule.
If staff resist going to the rally point and argue with the company’s fire safety officer, you may morale issues or even a passive aggressive organisation. At a deeper level, it may suggest a blame culture because employees look to blame someone.
A fire drill where employees and managers work together, support the fire safety officers, and go to the evacuation spot will reflect an organisation that is well managed, works together and knows how to execute its plans. If your business cannot execute a fire drill, can it execute the routine work?
How does your company handle a fire drill?
 Denis Tourish explores these and other issues in his paper on critical upwards communication. https://openair.rgu.ac.uk/bitstream/10059/190/1/LRPpaper1.pdf I recommend his work highly for its insights and suggestions on how to improve.