Is Slack the problem?

Interesting article about how some CEO’s are starting to dislike the openness of Slack in their company communication. I understand where they are coming from, somewhat. You don’t want a few people flooding company channels with divisive or unproductive conversations. I have seen this happen in real time with no one countering it.

Complaining in a public channel can go 2 ways: 1) the complaint is constructive and brings attention to an issue or 2) the complaint is just to complain about a tough situation but offers no resolution. One is productive and the other needs to be addressed with your boss or HR. How your employees use these company chat programs is a reflection of how management uses them. I know that I look at how my boss, managers, and executives conduct themselves on Slack and do some mimicry. They create spoked and unspoken guidelines that I try to follow.

My issue with this article is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of solutions, other than reducing internal communication. One example that it does spend time on is Google. Over the last few years Google has made changes to its internal communication tools to reduce the openness of conversations. There was a lot of political discussion about internal policies and also about products. Apparently the powers that be at Google dealt with this by shutting down the conversations.

In Google’s case I think you have a bit of their own gravitas coming back to bite them. Their famous S-1 filing that mentioned: “Don’t be evil” seemed cool and innovative to some, but the reality is that Google is a massive money making advertising platform. What does it mean for an advertising platform to “not be evil”?

One has to ask if the issues at Google are due to technologies that allowed internal communication, or Google’s early naivete about what a company and business is. It is easy to blame the technology but if you literally tell the world in your SEC filing that you are not going to be evil, then maybe you are setting yourself up for culture issues later on.

Are you considering the long term implications of what the company is communicating internally today? If you say something like “Don’t Be Evil” and think that no one is going to take that literally then you are in for a rude surprise, as Google is experiencing currently. If, say, you are in negotiations with the Chinese government to create a search engine made for spying on its citizens then maybe your company culture is going to speak up about that.

Also keep in mind that your employees are going to find ways to communicate with each other in ways that you don’t always approve. Whether its a physical happy hour at the bar or a chat room on a personal Signal account; they are going to talk about work. Just because you have kicked them off the company Slack doesn’t mean they won’t talk with each other. In fact if you police Slack too much you may be giving them something else to talk about.

Personally I enjoy the ability to speak freely wherever I work. I was reminded of this while on a support call with a company last night. I was calling the company because there was an issue with their documentation and I needed clarification. In the course of the conversation we discovered numerous issues with the documentation and processes at the company.

I mentioned that the support rep should be excited to share this information internally. They mentioned that at this company reporting errors isn’t always the best thing for the individual making the report. It made me sad to think that the employee had to second guess if they should report something as important as an incorrect support document, due to internal politics.

It also reminded me why I seek out companies that value vibrant and challenging internal communication. “If you see something, say something.” is a motto I take to heart at work. No matter my position at a company, if there is something wrong with the product or documentation I feel like I should tell someone. If this is done in a public channel then it maximizes the potential for people to see it and take action to resolve it.

Having effective open communications comes from the top down. If the executives allow or promote divisive discussions then the sub-ordinates are going to follow suit. If the executives don’t engage their people in open channels then they should not be surprised if the conversations that occur are not what they expect.

If an executive or manager steps into a Slack conversation I know that I am going to read what they say very carefully. I am also going to use what they say and how they say it as a guide for how the company operates and pass that to my co-workers and the customer. If they are genuine and open about why, how, and what then so am I.

My suspicion is that the executives complaining about Slack are not participating much beyond posting monthly announcements. From my experience Slack is a reflection of the company using it. If you put the classic top down management system into Slack then that’s what is going to show up. Expect sub-ordinates to create private channels to discuss things, because its not safe for them to talk like that in public channels.

Creating a culture of open communication is not done by purchasing software. It is done by fostering open communication with your sub ordinates as a manager. This means opening yourself up for criticism and growing with your sub-ordinate. It probably means rethinking a top-down approach to management.


2 responses to “Is Slack the problem?”

  1. Great post. This is a really tricky issue that grows increasingly complex the more folks you have in your Slack workspace. Great reminder for me personally to engage more in Slack! 🙂

    1. Thanks and agreed. I will probably revisit Slack as a work tool again soon.

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