In an Information Desert, Rumors Are a Mirage, Not an Oasis

Andy Silber | December 11, 2018

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Working in an office where leadership doesn’t communicate about the critical issues affecting the company is like wandering a desert without a canteen. You wander the office seeking to quench your thirst for information, but all you find are rumors. Everyone is gossiping about possible layoffs or project cancelations.

These conversations happen when change and uncertainty are in the air, but clear communication from leadership is absent. A couple of things to understand about these conversations:

  • They’re the natural outcome of team members being kept in the dark.
  • They add little or no value since no decisions are made.
  • They can reduce morale, by spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).
  • They are completely preventable with good leadership that trusts the team with critical information.

The Mirage

Rumors fly around a nervous office like buzzards around a caravan lost in the desert. These rumors are just a mirage, and they will not slake your thirst for understanding: you’re just drinking sand.

Imagine all the time that’s been spent speculating with no data around the coffee pots of Seattle since Amazon announced its desire to open HQ2 somewhere else.

Where will it be? If my manager wants to move, will I have to? Will it be somewhere I want to move?

Amazon managed the process in a way that maximized speculation in city halls and newsrooms across North America as well as within the hallways throughout South Lake Union (Amazon’s HQ1). How much did these conversations distract from work or reduce morale? Did people look for jobs elsewhere due to FUD? I don’t know; this is just more speculation in the absence of knowledge.

I once worked at a small company where engineering and manufacturing were on one side of a road and sales, marketing, and the executives were on the other, but we might as well have been on opposite sides of the moon. We could tell the sales were poor only because we could count the number of devices shipping per month on one hand. When I first started, we had “all-hands” meetings about once a year, and it was obvious that the information was out-of-date two weeks later. Priorities were changed; however, the rationale was never explained, and it didn’t matter as the priorities would change again six months later.

Then, the death spiral started. An all-hands meeting meant layoffs. Time spent developing features that might have saved the company was spent wondering who would be cut. By the time it was my turn, I was glad to be gone and out of the death spiral.

Funnily, I came back seven weeks later to work on a special project funded by a large pharmaceutical company. It was a great project; we were meeting or beating all of our deadlines, but Phase 2 wasn’t getting signed. Not wanting to be let go twice from the same company, I left. If there had been some communication about why the second phase wasn’t getting signed, I might have stayed on to complete the project.

The Oasis

Even in the driest desert, there is a pocket of water and shade, an oasis. How do you turn your office full of FUD into an oasis? I’m guessing you already know the answer: better and clearer communication. When leadership has a poor communication style, gossip will spread quickly throughout an office.

Sometimes leadership doesn’t communicate because the company has sensitive information that it doesn’t want to become public. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead” (though I think it would sound better coming from Don Corleone), so it’s understandable why not everything is shared. For instance, Amazon clearly didn’t want a high level of transparency around the HQ2 search, so how could they minimize the gossip? One way is to communicate as much as possible. For instance, if they had already decided which teams would be relocated, they could share this information. Those teams that weren’t relocating would relax. The teams that will be moving would gossip as much as before, so the total amount of gossip would be reduced. Having a communication strategy that shares as much information as possible reduces gossip.

Another approach is to get input from the affected teams. If the team knows their concerns are part of the discussions, the FUD is greatly reduced, which reduces the useless chatter. This only works if leadership has earned the trust of the team and if the team members are confident their concerns will be factored into the decisions. Leadership earns that trust by making good, informed decisions consistently. Without that history and trust, gathering input doesn’t help as much as it will once trust is earned.

Most companies will experience tough times in their lives and will have great distances of fear, uncertainty, and doubt to cross. Communication and trust are the foundations of turning your office space from a desert to an oasis, and your team can pass from oasis to oasis and emerge on the other side stronger for the effort.

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