Now Hear This!
In the news: Employee who was no longer employed at his company showed up on day to visit his former colleagues. They did not know why he was no longer employed there- just that he was a former colleague and a good guy. They let him in, welcoming him with back slaps and “howyadoin’!” They did not know that he had been terminated for serious threats against another colleague with whom he’d had a relationship that didn’t end well. They didn’t know about the restraining order or the gun.
Fortunately for everyone involved, nothing tragic happened. The threatened colleague was out that day, and when word got back to HR that the former employee had shown up at the workplace, the police were notified and the staff was finally given the critical information that would have stopped them from letting him back in in the first place. The company, in bending over backwards to maintain privacy and avoid risking a lawsuit, endangered their entire team.
The leadership team at the company had sought to keep the details a secret. But in the business world, there are no secrets, only alternate information. If nature abhors a vacuum, human beings abhor not knowing, and in the absence of accurate information will create their own, based on their sources or from their own point of view. At that point the created information takes on a life on its own. Anyone who’s ever worked in even the smallest office knows the power of the grapevine. So powerful that it can easily outshout actual facts. Facebook is just a grapevine on steroids.
One Cannot Not Communicate. Paul Watzlawick’s famous axiom, too often ignored.
Too often the executive team assumes that until they tell people otherwise, employees know nothing. As if they happily go about their work in ignorance, until The Meeting, when their leaders tell them where it’s at. Hell no. They always know something is going on. When they don’t get facts from their leadership, they draw their own conclusions, and their often-worst-case scenarios. More audits than usual? We must be getting sold. More executive meetings? The company must be trouble. Joe’s been out for quite a while. Cancer? Got caught with his hand in the till?
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when I overheard a teller recommend to a customer that she transfer her accounts to another bank, as “I don’t think this one is going to be here very long.” She worked in a small bank that was at the wrong end of a merger. The big bank had not communicated critical information to the staff, from whether they would themselves have jobs (their first and only concern!) to which branches would remain open. The teller drew her own conclusions- and passed them on to her customers. I wonder how many others took the same tack, with no one to overhear them.
When you need to inform people, look to press conferences as an example, where the spokesperson’s job is to share what accurate information is available, and give updates as they become available. Some key components:
Tell them as soon as possible, even if it’s not much. Traditional thinking- “wait until we have complete information…it’s still in flux…wait until we have accurate information,” opens the door to speculation. Sometimes the first information is simply acknowledging a situation or a rumor.
Tell them what you can, even if it’s incomplete. People feel respected when they’re treated as adults who can handle incomplete information.
If you can’t tell them everything, tell them that, and let them know why- confidentiality, legal issues, safety, etc.
Encourage feedback and be open to questions.
Update as needed, as often as possible.
Communicate regularly and consistently with employees about what’s going on in the workplace. Reliable, accurate information replaces the need for gossip and speculation, increases trust, fosters healthy relationships and ensures that everyone on the team is on the same page.