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Insights on business, and practical ways to improve your own.

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GRAPEVINES: STOPPING OFFICE GOSSIP

Practical ways to minimize the damage.

by Kate (July, 2003)

(Note: "Kate" is a mid-level manager of a craft company.)

Do you have a green thumb or a brown one? Do your plants thrive or wilt? In most cases people with brown thumbs hang their heads in shame when conversations revolve around the latest triumphs of the garden. There is a time, however, when the brown thumbs can hold their heads high, proud of their inability to keep something alive. That is when they resist the urge to participate in the survival or growth of the company grapevine.

This urge to be included is very hard to ignore. In an office environment, many people value themselves based upon the information that is given to them, more than on the quality of the job they do. Unfortunately, the value is not realized until the information has been passed on to others. After all, unless someone knows the extent of the confidential information given to you, how can they put a value on you?

Do you remember when adults would have us kids play the game of Telephone? It was always interesting to see how a simple question, "Do turtles have necks?" whispered from one child to the next, could evolve into "I saw two turtles necking under a tree."

There are many explanations for this transformation. Only certain words were heard; the message was misinterpreted; or the softly spoken message wasn't heard clearly. Another explanation: the information was deliberately embellished or exaggerated.

Is it any wonder that an off-the-cuff comment about a slow month in shipping can end up with employees updating their resumes because the company is days from filing bankruptcy?

How can employers put a stop to the grapevine? The simple truth is that one person cannot stop it. Memos, meetings, and emails that direct staff members to kill grapevines instead only act like fertilizer, increasing the size and negative effects of the vine.

There are some steps that can be taken but they will only work over a period of time and with constant reinforcement.

1. The most important step in stopping the grapevine misinformation is effective communication. This is not restricted to your telling, but also to your listening. As a manager or supervisor, you need to pass on complete information and at the same time, encourage your staff to come directly to you with any questions or concerns. When they do talk with you, listen to what they have to say and do your best to thoroughly answer any questions without divulging anything that is not for public knowledge.

2. Be aware of who is within earshot when you're talking with others. Don't hesitate to pause your conversation and move it to a more private area. Remember that others may only be hearing select phrases or words and will be tempted to pass this information on after filling in the blanks themselves.

3. Don't be afraid to question the information given to you in a "Did you hear what so and so said?" format. Recently I've begun asking these people if they were told this information directly by the person in question, and if the information does not involve their area within the company, why they are passing on information that has nothing to do with them or their job?

Needless to say, these people have walked away in a huff and have added my comments to the grapevine gossip. Though the grapevine still makes a presence in my office, it is with much less frequency than before.

4. Finally, if you have been given confidential information, someone has determined that you need to know it and can be trusted with it. Do you really want to jeopardize that trust? As hard as it may be to keep the information to yourself, remember to ask yourself if the sharing of that information is more beneficial to your overall career than keeping it quiet. When a co-worker knows you have a juicy tidbit, give them evasive answers to their prodding questions. If tactful evasion doesn't work, firmly let those inquiring minds know that you're not in a position to share the information. Then don't share it.

The reality of the business world is that no matter how hard we try to avoid them, grapevines are one of the most active and detrimental aspects of a company. They often contain misinformation, and always succeed in creating tension, low morale, and reduced productivity. As one frustrated manager was overheard saying, "If products moved through our system as quickly as (mis)information moves through our grapevine, we'd all be retired millionaires right now."

Note: Have any comments on this or other columns of Kate's? Any topics you'd like Kate to tackle? Email Kate directly at katescollagecln@aol.com.

xxx

 

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