Chinese whispers constitute a pernicious, if understandable, problem in office politics. A rumour can evolve like a Mexican wave in a football stadium that X has been exiled to the Aberdeen office for bad-mouthing the boss, when they’ve actually taken a year’s sabbatical to cycle across Asia. It’s hard enough communicating effectively with one colleague, let alone a multitude at once.
Hard, but possible once you resolve to push back the fog of mis-information, non-information and group paranoia.
Nip any Chinese whispers in the bud, as once they have spread it’s surprisingly hard to retract them and undo the damage. People will excitedly mutter cliches like ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ and ‘you’ve got to crack eggs to make an omelette’ even if the claim is spurious.
Make everyone feel included. No one wants to receive second-hand information that’s old news to the majority of their colleagues. Internal email can help if the information does not warrant face-to-face meetings. Survey after survey shows that the most common reason for people leaving a job is lack of recognition and feeling undervalued. The fastest way to make someone feel undervalued is to exclude them from important news.
People value being consulted, but don’t raise false expectations that they can shape policy when it’s already signed, sealed and delivered.
Communication and consultation should never be confused.
Remember that size matters. In a small team it’s relatively easy to communicate with everyone simultaneously, either via meetings or informally. But large extended teams may need to cascade information horizontally, vertically and every which way. Designated communication facilitators may need to be appointed within teams, who make it their business to ensure relevant people receive information. Long distance team working, across national borders is especially hard. Cultural issues can kick in: you can’t just assume everyone will have the same interpretation.
Extroverts can distort team communication by dominating proceedings and speaking for everyone else. They may appear to speak on behalf of the whole group but you need to check that you’re getting the genuine spectrum of opinion. Leave channels of communication open for individuals to quietly come to managers with divergent views. You can’t eliminate personal antipathies but you can get differences out in the open to a happy state of ‘agreeing to disagree’. Encourage constructive debate and dissent. For this to work an organisation needs to rid itself of any blame culture.
The assertion ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is true, so making good communication a prerequisite of getting the job done should in turn improve communication.
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