Why You Need to Differentiate the Chain of Communication from the Chain of Command
05 Nov 2021
What happens in a company or organization when the chain of communication and chain of command become one and the same? It’s a recipe for disaster, says New York Times bestselling author, science writer and APB exclusive speaker David Epstein.
In the latest edition of his "Range Widely" newsletter, which is available live on Bulletin, Epstein writes about the importance of differentiating the chain of communication from the chain of command. When there is no separation of the two, information gets diluted or stops flowing. One reason for this phenomenon is because “managers are getting information only from people whose main concern is earning their approval, or at least not ruining their day,” he says.
Epstein shares several stories of the catastrophes that have occurred when there is no separation of the two, from the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia to massive wildfires in Siberia.
But with Epstein being Epstein, he also cites a few examples of managers who have handled communication the right way. One person who excelled at it is Rocket Scientist Wernher von Braun. He required his engineering team at the Marshall Space Flight Center to submit a single-page report each week on any issues, triumphs, requests for help, etc.
“Von Braun took the notes and put handwritten comments in the margin,” Epstein says. “Sometimes he broke out exclamation points to congratulate a team; other times he left a raised-eyebrow question mark…He asked for clarification when he didn’t understand something, and he solicited disagreement. When he wanted an extra opinion on an issue in the notes, he wrote a specific engineer’s name alongside ‘Please comment!’”
Even more significant than the actual exercise, each note was passed along to the entire team to read. “Everyone could see what others were up to, and they could see that raising problems and being transparent about confusion was met with helpful suggestions from the big boss,” Epstein says. “Nobody had to play the role of the first person to raise their hand at an all-team meeting.”
It's no surprise that Epstein is writing about the importance of communication. Throughout his career, he has made it his mission to uncover the keys to achieving high performance in any profession or fast-changing environment—knowledge that has become essential to educating, developing and retaining the workforce of the future.
He is the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. The book examines the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and Nobel laureates. He discovered that in most fields—especially those that are complex and unpredictable—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
Epstein is also the author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. In this book, Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving it.
Epstein was previously the host of Slate‘s popular “How To!” podcast, and a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica. Prior to that, he was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he co-authored the story that revealed Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez had used steroids. His TED Talks have been viewed more than 10 million times.