Echo chamber risk and the role of middle management in information flow

I kept encountering the phrase “Echo Chamber” this week and even though I know what it stands for, I can’t help but to look up its meaning on Wikipedia. On Wiki, it defined Echo Chamber as,

Echo chamber (media) An echo chamber is “an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.” In discussions of news media, an echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal …

 

Just think about it, recent history is replete with examples of leaders being entrenched in their own interpretations of truth, particularly when circumstances turn against the company. Instead of responding logically to the cautionary signals all around them, they dig further into their echo chamber, listening to the deputies that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

One of the most dangerous aspects of echo chambers is that they lead to a lack of creative ideas, similar viewpoints, and identical concepts. On an organisational level, I seriously think that this can limit our chances for progress and stifle constructive discussion.

Now, with the vast quantity of information available on the internet, I don’t really think that it is difficult to obtain “evidences” that support a committee’s viewpoint. The challenge, and very useful one indeed, is to discover dissident ideas and views that do not correspond to your own point of view and build these insights into our strategy, and this can only be achieved by deliberately seeking out people and groups that are not so similar and also maybe from other industries.

The risk is, deputies or middle management might tend to form committees that comprise people who more or less mirror the views of the head honcho. Importantly, these middle managers represent the company’s culture by encouraging and implementing appropriate beliefs and behavioral patterns throughout the organisation.

Fundamentally, the flow of information in an organisation is also controlled by middle management. They are privy to crucial information and gossips (important too!) and it is up to them to communicate (or not) the critical information to the appropriate supervisors or departments. Failure to surface critical information can sometimes lead to the fall of the leader or worse, the organisation.

Perhaps leaders could also consider to be more purposeful in surrounding themselves with advisers who are competent, logical, confident, and genuine in order to counteract this Echo Chamber risk, otherwise they risk slipping into this fatal communication gap.

One good example would be Nokia; its fall from being the world’s finest mobile phone firm to losing everything by 2013 has become a case study that professors and students in business management classes have examined. Not only did they formed an echo chamber, they also fostered a very toxic work environment. According to a study (Vuori & Huy 2016) with 76 Nokia top and middle managers, engineers and external experts, they discovered the following about Nokia:

  • Nokia was plagued by organisational anxiety at the time;
  • The anxiety in the organisation was rooted in a culture of toxic working environment filled with terrified middle managers;
  • Top executives frequently intimidated middle managers by accusing them of not being ambitious enough to achieve their objectives;
  • Middle management was afraid to reveal the truth for fear of getting sacked;
  • Middle management lied to top management because they believed stating the truth was pointless; top management lacked technical knowledge, which affected how they could judge technology limits during KPI formulation; in comparison, Apple’s top management were all engineers;
  • Middle management were hesitant to openly admit that Symbian, Nokia’s operating system, was inferior;
  • Top executives were terrified of losing investors, suppliers, and consumers if they admitted to Apple’s technological superiority;
  • They were aware that developing a superior operating system capable of competing with Apple’s iOS would take several years; and
  • Rather than committing resources to long-term aims such as building a new operating system, Nokia management chose to create new phone handsets to meet short-term market demands.

Nokia’s demise was precipitated by a series of poor decisions, yet none of the company’s errors were unavoidable. I think that there are several lessons to be drawn from the demise of this technological behemoth.

Reference(s):

Vuori, T. O., & Huy, Q. N. (2016). Distributed Attention and Shared Emotions in the Innovation Process: How Nokia Lost the Smartphone Battle. Administrative Science Quarterly61(1), 9–51.

 

Echo chamber risk and the role of middle management in information flow by Zeng Han-Jun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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