Bosses Should Try Harder to Lend an Ear

"I've been meaning to come see you," a young office worker said to a colleague that he met by the water cooler the other day, "but that office of yours is awfully imposing. And so is your secretary."

What made that comment rather telling is that the colleague's office is modest in comparison with those further up the management ladder, and his secretary, effective as she is, isn't even located where she can bar the door.

It is no small problem in big bureaucracies to keep the lines of communication open, especially open upward rather than just downward. It's common to hear the complaint of people at or near the top that they feel isolated from the rest of the organization. Those are the smart ones. Many others are equally isolated and don't realize it. Most of what they know about what goes on below comes to them on paper. Their decision making often is impersonal and based on ill-informed judgments.

One local retailing executive was a case in point. This individual surrounded herself with a coterie of assistants who went everywhere with her, even when she visited the stores. As a result, she seldom had an opportunity to stop and talk informally with sales personnel, let alone customers. She talked instead with her own small group.

That kind of protective shield often develops unwittingly. At some companies, the offices of the executives at the top are so lavish, so well protected by executive secretaries in the outer lobbies, that getting in to see the boss is more like a diplomatic mission than a casual visit.

For years, some steel companies maintained lavish executive offices in New York, far from their actual operations. They were so isolated that they sometimes thought sales were rising when they'd long since turned down. Many other old-line companies had similar traits, and a few still do.

Even getting in to see the boss doesn't always bridge the gap. One top-level executive in Los Angeles is so uncomfortable hearing conflict among his colleagues that he changes the subject when a discussion gets at all heated. Another told an associate that he didn't want to hear about it when the associate brought up a problem with employee parking privileges.

The isolation can continue outside the office. The perks that make holding some of these high offices so attractive often are a big part of the problem. During the worst of the energy crunch half a decade ago, the head of a major oil company conceded that he didn't know much about lines at service stations. He had a driver and never had to buy gas.

Lack of accessibility atop the executive ladder gets inbred sometimes. It's there before the man or woman who sits behind the desk even arrives. It is set up by the various people who serve the top echelon, sometimes out of a sense that they are somehow protecting their boss' time, sometimes because it gives them power.

Whatever the reason, bureaucracies suffer from it and it fosters the kind of top-down decision making and "yes-man" mentality that leads to corporate disaster. It often makes it just as difficult for the executive to come down from on high as for his employees to get up there for an audience with him.

Modern offices often are laid out to fight the problem. There's more glass so the inner sanctum is at least visible. Some management training programs teach the idea of MBWA, which stands for management by walking around.

One middle-level executive thought he had a solution. He held parties in his office. The problem is that the same group always came, and the rest of the staff felt shut out. A more successful approach was the effort that one chief executive made to sit at a big empty table in the corporate lunchroom and let anyone who wanted join him. The joint Toyota-General Motors auto plant in Fremont, Calif., has eliminated separate dining facilities for executives and the rest of the work force. Union Bank, after surveying employees about communications problems, has begun holding round-table discussions in which an executive bypasses the next level of management below to meet with those one level further down.

That helps, but the problem is one that executives and their aides have to work on continuously.

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