Hello out there. To say we are living in interesting times must be the world’s greatest understatement. The “suddenly” principle has been in operation and yet what we are reacting to suddenly has actually been staring us in the face for a while. However, you know what they say…hind sight is 20/20 vision.
The last pandemic was the Spanish flu of 1918. Don’t you wonder how they coped at that time? We are more advanced technologically, medically and in general ‘know-how’ and we still seem to be finding it so difficult. One thing that we have much more of now is information. Communication is at our finger tips all the time. Usually when there is correct information, that is clear, succinct and timely, the situation is supposed to be good. Unfortunately, the worst part of this pandemic we have found ourselves in is the communication around it. So much fake news that people’s lives are actually at risk.
This brings me to today’s topic which is the “The grapevine” better known as office gossip.
Gossip is defined as “idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others”. Gossipers share unverified information with others who are neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. Furthermore, mean-spirited gossip is detrimental to the person or organisation that is the topic of conversation. Gossip can be viewed as a form of workplace harassment and organisations have an obligation to address it.
The impact of gossip at work includes but is not limited to loss of productivity, wasted time, decreased morale and motivation, increased staff turnover and an overall culture of negativity. One of the main reasons for gossip is poor communication within an organisation.
Gossip can occur when the exchange of information from leadership to management and on to front-line workers is insufficient and not properly managed. Gossip can also occur when staff lack the skill to tackle their concerns directly.
There has to be a path for open, honest and direct dialogue especially among leadership since they influence the entire organisation through their values, actions and priorities. Leadership should not communicate with each other only via emails, with minimal face to face communication, each person doing their own thing. This will become a culture that will permeate the organisation. The office staff will take sides and be lack lustre without any team spirit. There will be minimal interaction.
This kind of atmosphere would breed misunderstandings, gossip and conflict that may never be resolved through open and honest dialogue.
Any organisation without the practice of transparency and clear communication guidelines will struggle internally. Leadership entertaining gossip and collecting information through unauthorised channels don’t help.
Transparency is key. Employees expect you, their supervisors to communicate frequently and honestly about what is going on within the organisation. When relevant information is not shared or not shared in a timely fashion, staff are left to fill in the blanks to make sense of what is going on. When in addition there is insufficient exchange of information and an employee’s needs to belong, be valued and be important are missing, you have created the formula for the grapevine.
In present times leaders can no longer operate in isolation and expect staff to comply without question. Employees must be kept informed especially because of easy accessibility to information through technology. Great leaders respond to questions quickly and give the opportunity for staff to express their fears and concerns without judgment or defensiveness. They work hard at building a strong team of informed staff who are encouraged to contribute. They are role models and aren’t afraid of sharing information, even though it might result in an unfavourable response.
As an organisation you should define transparency and add it to your corporate values. Facilitate the conversation on its definition, importance and what it means regarding decision-making and internal /external communication.
You must develop a clear and concise statement on how transparency is honoured in the organisation, and communicate this to your team. You must practise it consistently as You cannot maintain trust if you selectively apply it. You, leadership must be accountable
Workplaces wrongly assume employees have sufficient communication skills because they have an education. Unfortunately, most people struggle with verbal and written communication, and when you add ethnic diversity, different dialects and meaning of words, the potential for misunderstanding multiplies. Communication basics, such as active listening and being assertive, should be mandatory training for all staff, with a focus on the ongoing practice of skills.
Just as an aside, when staff first join an organisation straight out of school, they should be trained on how to manage themselves. This includes communication skills. When they become supervisors, they should be trained on how to manage other staff, which again includes a more advanced communication skills module. Finally, when they get into top leadership, they are then taught how to manage the organisation which includes an even higher level of communication skills.
Staff also need to feel safe in going directly to the source of their concern, whether that be a supervisor, colleague or client. Experience and beliefs around disagreements strongly influence our response. Before, when there were challenging conversations, there may have been shouting, storming out, shutting down, using positional power, pretending it’s okay, etc. None of these strategies demonstrate excellent communication skills or the possibility of resolution. Instead, they escalate our fear of having difficult conversations. By setting communication guidelines (i.e., ground rules) for conversations, employees know what behaviour to expect when they sit down to discuss a difference of opinion with a co-worker.
Each organisation has to establish organisation-wide communication guidelines that identify proper behaviour before, during and after conversations. As best as you can, define and/or give examples of what it looks like. For example, respect is demonstrated by listening carefully without interrupting, being attentive by focusing on the person, leaning forward and using facial gestures that show interest. Disrespect might include interruption, rolling eyes, turning away from the person, storming out etc.
The confidentiality of the conversation must be agreed and Staff need to be assured that there will be no repercussions or retaliation following the conversation be it with a colleague or supervisor. Staff who disregard communication guidelines must be dealt with through corrective action if you expect to change their behaviour.
The impact of gossip in the work place however is minimal compared to the impact in the world at a time like this. During this pandemic, people have died because of fake news. We all need to really be responsible when we forward news, we are not sure the authenticity. This should also be the culture in our workplaces.
We have all been enjoined to stay at home. Please do, it may help you or somebody not be a statistic. Keep safe.