Having once worked for a boss who would NEVER tell his subordinates what he really thought, taught me the value of paying attention to backchannels. Once I became aware of them, however, I began to see they were a critical part of information gathering in every organization. These conduits exist in all large organizations, but the decision still remains with the individual whether or not they use them.
I'll argue that in many cases, ignoring back channels is done only at great risk to your long term success in the organization.
But there's also a caveat -- you must be cognizant of the risk that backchannel information may be inaccurate, both unintentionally and as a tool of manipulation. Careful evaluation of the information supplier's motives, and selective verification, can prevent you from making a big mistake.
Informal Communications are a part of the messages you hear each day about what is "really" going on in the company. When the information comes from unreliable sources, or include a healthy dose of speculation, we typically call it gossip. When it comes from a credible person, and is obtained close to the source, it is backchannel information.
Over the years, I've found backchannels to be quite useful.
I once learned that my boss hated the selection I made for my vice president of operations through a backchannel. Having that knowledge allowed me to feature the employees accomplishments during regular reviews, which ultimately redeemed the individual (at least to a degree) in my supervisor's eyes.
I once used backchannels to squelch a rumour (an absurd one dealing with layoffs, and me being given cars when certain hurdles were reached), by making the "proof" it was false available to key people who I knew would send it through the organization.
Listening to or using backchannels, however, can be risky. I once confided some frustrations with my supervisor to a peer, hoping for sympathy and advice, and instead later discovered the peer had passed along the comments to my boss. In that case, my boss was the beneficiary of the backchannel communication, and I suffered as a result. I never confided to that peer again -- lesson learned.
Probably the most important instance where backchannel communication helped me, however, was with the boss that NEVER revealed his true thoughts. I discovered that while he wouldn't tell ME what he thought about my actions and decisions, he would tell me what he thought about the actions and decisions of OTHERS. The only way to really figure out what was going on, was to talk to some of these other people, gathering and sharing the little nuggets of information.
The result was an interesting "market" for information, which included favor trading, manipulation, and even deception on occassion -- the most common behavior being the first of these.
In one instance, my job was at risk, and I didn't even realize it. A group of distributors were in a "semi-revolt" concerning delivery performance, and word had reached my boss. Rather than actually discussing it with me, however, he apparently roamed up and down the halls of corporate headquarters speculating with others on what was wrong and what needed to be done to correct it. I'm sure that replacing me was one of the options on the table.
Fortunately, one of my favor-trading partners gave me a call, and warned me of the seriousness of the situation. I was able to put together a quick action plan, and proactively drop in and let my boss know that I considered the situation critical, and already had a plan of attack to correct it. To this day, I think that phone call saved my job.
In another instance, I watched as a peer's career was torpedoed by backchannel communication concerning his (unreliable) work hours. In that case, the complaint came from one of the peer's staff who had direct access to the CFO. While it was true that the peer was taking some liberties, there was enough exaggeration involved that I'm sure the situation appeared much more damning than it should have.
Of course, some of this behavior can be distasteful, but the political survivor needs to develop backchannel sources, and regularly monitor and evaluate the information that is passed through it. This informal communications channel can save your career, and inform you about priorities and standards that you might not otherwise have access to.
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS