By David Falk
It is that time of year where some of us need to keep a look out for icicles and other indicators that we may have ice dams forming on our roofs. If not addressed, a simple ice dam can do significant damage as it blocks the melt water from flowing off the roof, causing it to back up under the shingles and cause significant water damage to the ceiling and walls… unfortunately I speak with insight from experience.
One of the 4 common types of workplace gossip functions much like an ice dam. When the natural design for organizational information flow becomes blocked, the need for information builds up and gossip will seep into the organization and potentially cause all types of damage.
Think about what happens during times of significant change. Leadership will often instinctively start to restrict the amount of communication flow to staff due to the level of uncertainty and ambiguity that exists. This is a common “all or nothing” trap. Not wanting to say “we don’t know yet” or provide only partial information, leadership say nothing at all, or provides such tightly controlled communication that constricts the need for information flow.
These communication barriers cause the need for information to build up, increasing anxiety and stress, which is then “relieved” by gossip seeps communication into the organization. In the absence of direct information, people make up stuff. As Holly Green states, “In the absence of information, we make stuff up. We do it all the time, and then we believe it to be true! Our brain won’t live with a void so it fills in the blanks. Most of what we make up is negative, and usually worse than the truth. Just listen to your internal dialogue the next time the boss calls you into her office and you don’t know what for.” (Forbes 2012).
The messages that we make up, while usually influenced by our fears and insecurities can also be distorted by our fantasies and dreams that can be equally damaging.
So if information is not flowing through the formal channels, ask yourself why? What is to be gained by withholding information? What are the potential risks of sharing everything that you can at this point and acknowledging the areas of uncertainty or the areas that truly need to be confidential at this time. Contrast these risks with the risk of gossip seeping throughout the staff distorting information with their fears and fantasies.
To prevent dams,
Flood the workplace with facts and make transparency your friend.
You can avoid the all or nothing trap by sharing what ever you can as soon as you can. And ensure that your formal communication channels are clean and functioning well. You do not want to go into winter your eaves troughs full of leaves!
If you need to break up some ice dams and get the information flowing, have a standard “rumour of the week” agenda item during your regular staff meetings. During this time of the meeting any staff can share the “rumour” that they have heard and you can respond by confirming or clarifying the rumour (sharing what you can) or committing to finding out the goods and sharing everything that you can with the staff as soon as you can.
If you would like to explore other ways you can address communication dams in your workplace including looking at the 3 other types of workplace gossip, consider a lunch and learn or PD event for your staff: Putting the Gag on Workplace Gossip.