From waterfall to tides – how to improve communication with your team

Information in an organisation is like a waterfall. It tends to flow pretty easily from its ‘source’ at the top – usually the senior leadership team. Memos, directives, new procedures and policies – they all veritably gush down onto the heads of the workforce.

The problem with a waterfall is that the water doesn’t flow uphill.

What’s wrong with that?

  • Employee grievances are left to fester
  • The quality of the senior leadership team’s decision making suffers, because they don’t gain the ‘full picture’
  • Great ideas go by the wayside, because valuable insights gained only by those who work on the front line are missed
  • Poor leadership behaviour goes unchecked, because there’s no immediate mechanism to channel information about those poor leadership practices
  • Those at the top aren’t getting enough of the right information at the right time in order to course correct or make positive changes quickly enough

Sure, there’s the annual employee engagement survey. But on its own, this formal feedback mechanism is often a case of too little, too late (a bit like the annual “dump truck performance appraisal”).

If we’re talking water metaphors, rather than a waterfall, [Tweet “try to make communication in your organisation mirror the ‘ebb and flow of the tides’”] – every day, two way and no big deal.

Getting more real-time, honest information and feedback from your employees is the way to go if you want to build a high performance organisation.

Here are five ways you can encourage the tide vs the waterfall approach to communication in your organisation:

  1. Make it easy and safe for people to give feedback.  People often are a bit scared to talk upwards (see here for what I mean). So regularly ask your team to push back on ideas and make it safe to do so. Don’t act defensively if you get negative feedback, but say thank you and seek to understand more. Don’t forget to read nonverbal cues.
  2. Create multiple mediums for people to tell you what they really think. Internal social media platforms like Yammer and Podio foster ‘ebb and flow’ communication, as does the prudent use of tools like Surveymonkey.
  3. Ensure your meetings include the chance for team members to voice their opinion on business developments, company affairs and ideas. Are your meetings predicated by the boss in the room predominantly talking at people, or are you facilitating group involvement and ensuring every voice in the room is heard?
  4. Make it a habit to ask lots of open questions – in monthly one-on-ones or after a meeting with a customer.  Getting feedback doesn’t have to be a formal affair. Here are a few questions you can regularly and informally ask your direct reports for starters:
  • What are some of the things you like most about working here?
  • What frustrates you the most about your job and what could be some ideas to fix it?
  • If we could do one thing differently or better as a company/ team, what would it be?
  • What, as your boss, do you want me to do more of?  Less of?  Stop doing? Start doing?
  • What’s going well and what’s not?
  1. Talk less. Listen more. Most leaders are doing more talking than listening, and not asking enough powerful open questions. Cue waterfall metaphor.

If you want your organisation to fire on all cylinders, you need to ensure you’re tapping into the opinions and ideas of the most important stakeholder you have – your employees. Creating an ‘ebb and flow of the tides’ communication approach, instead of that gushing waterfall will help you do that.


  1. Darron on April 7, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Great Post Suzi – spot on with our organization. We are trying, we need to create the safe, open environment that encourages feedback. Like the tide metaphor!!

    • Suzi McAlpine on April 7, 2018 at 7:49 pm

      Thanks for commenting Darron and good luck in continuing to cultivate a communication culture which is like those tides! Cheers Suzi

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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