The Mushroom Effect – Rumors ruin effectiveness

Were you surprised at the intensity of the passions expressed at last summer’s town hall meetings on health care? Regardless of what side you come down on, there’s a critical three-part leadership lesson to be culled from this unique, tumultuous glimpse into the American psyche:

  1. When people don’t know the facts, they make them up.
  2. When people make stuff up, fear abounds.
  3. When fear abounds, breakdowns happen.

Some of the people who screamed at their legislators were ignorant of the reality of the proposed health care bills. So they were reacting vehemently to a “reality” they were imagining, or had been told. Sound familiar?

For leaders, here’s the point: the less your people know what’s going on, the more breakdowns you can expect in the workplace. And conversely, the more clued in they are, the fewer the breakdowns.

Surveys show the #1 problem in many organizations is communication. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof. The morale-trashing conversations going on at the water cooler (or the virtual water cooler) are likely the result of inadequate communication. People kept in the dark naturally feel like mushrooms — and they’re hungry for fertilizer, no matter how toxic.

And know this for certain: if those conversations are morale-trashing, they’re motivation-trashing, and thus effectiveness-trashing.

In training Boeing managers — folks responsible for building airplanes — I’ve often asked them if rumors ever fly in the shop. The answer invariably is raucous laughter. No duh! The challenge of coping with the rumor mill is a major source of irritation to leaders everywhere. It erodes your organization’s mission — and it’s unnecessary.

It’s simple, and it’s not: keep your people informed. Err on the side of too much, rather than too little communication — and make sure the avenue of communication is a two-way street. Your organization’s existence might depend on it. The badly-needed reform of our healthcare system obviously does.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Have a conversation with a few random employees. Ask them what rumors are flying. Ask them what they’d like to know that they feel kept in the dark about. Ask them what’s missing in your organization’s communications. Then don’t just ask; do something about what you hear.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

One thought on "The Mushroom Effect – Rumors ruin effectiveness"

  1. I agree. Gossip and rumors infect an organization like virus infects a computer. Unfortunately, there is no “gossip virus protection” for people. And technology, with all its benefits, makes it easy to spread rumors. One click on the mouse can cause irreparable damage.

    I believe words are the most potent tool people possess. They can be used to inspire such as Martin Luther King did. But they can also sow the seeds of hate, jealousy and discord.

    As a leader, what you do and what you fail to do has significant impact upon your work group. Here are some ideas we discuss in our gossip-prevention workshops:

    1. Just say no. When the conversation turns to gossip, excuse yourself and walk away. Without wood, a fire goes out.

    2. Be impeccable with your word. Monitor your own conversations with others. Avoid gossip. You will earn followers and admirers (whether you want to or not) because people know you won’t talk about them behind their back.

    3. Be loyal to those not in the room. If Mike is speaking negatively about Lori, ask him to stop, and suggest he speak with Lori instead of speaking about her. One group we worked with created a set of team behavioral covenants that included, “Don’t speak about our team members; speak with them.”

    4. Educate. Hold mini-workshops on the destructive impact of gossip. Remind people how gossip can hurt the work team and the organization. Often, all people need is a gentle reminder. Several years ago we helped an organization develop a short training session on gossip, and the results were remarkable. It was one of most attended workshops they’d ever held. The sessions did two things. First, they gave people permission to stop gossip when they heard it. Secondly, they put pressure on the prime offenders to stop.

    5. Confront the gossiper. Make it clear that the gossip has to stop. If you are the leader, people are looking to you to handle any disruptive workplace behavior. If you don’t, you risk losing their respect.

    6. Consider implementing a policy on gossip or adding language to your existing harassment policy. The secret to crafting an effective policy is to ensure that it extinguishes the undesirable behavior while not smothering employee interactions. Of course, policies alone won’t work; they turn to dust and smoke when leaders fail to enforce them.

    7. Examine systemic issues. Gossip often proliferates when people have too much time on their hands. If they aren’t staying busy, you may need to find out why. Additionally, ask yourself whether people are getting regular updates about the company. In the absence of information, people tend to make it up. Stay informed about company news, and hold regular staff meetings as part of your leadership.

    Left unchecked, gossip can lead to low morale, decreased productivity, reduced quality of work, high turnover and unmet customer expectations. As a leader, it is your responsibility to redirect any unproductive behaviors in the workplace. So, go out and lead.

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