There was an expression when I was in the Army which was, “telephone, telegraph, tele-digger”. Basically, this meant that if you wanted something to be known (or not) around the country within moments, then just mention it in conversation to “Jonesy” (common digger nickname), the nearest well-meaning “digger” (soldier) whilst having a “darb” (cigarette) and “brew” (tea or coffee).
“Scuttlebut”, or gossip, is just one of those things that are an inevitable part of life in every organisation. Generally, low level gossip and rumour is easy to spot, and can be readily dismissed for what it is. However, things can sometimes arrive at the office door that are often less identifiable as gossip than they are as earnest, credible gems of ‘advice’ from direct reports. It generally starts off with something like “certain people have said…” or “ a few people have told me that…”.
I am constantly surprised at the frequency (and the seniority level) at which these comments suddenly become ‘fact’ and the basis for assessing morale and culture or worse, for decision making. Here’s a tip, next time you hear that non-specific, third-party language of “people are…” or “they’ve said…”, drill down on the information and get facts. Ask specific questions about who, what, when, where, how and why. You will be amazed at how 99% of the time, the person reporting the information rapidly begins to play down the story as “really not that important” and looks for the exits.
The secret? When people use third party language to convey something, they are often talking about themselves. We do it all the time. (And no, the irony from this last sentence is not lost on me). The issue or situation being reported is generally about the person giving it to you. What’s next is up to you, depending on what they’ve told you and your relationship with the person. But that is a darn sight easier to target and address quickly than the mystical masses out there that are apparently restless.
If you really want to have a finger on the pulse, get out and engage your people face to face at all levels, and most importantly , the first-line leaders and employees at the ‘coal face’. The honesty will be surprising and believe me, you will be told what’s going on in some refreshingly direct ways from the source, and you’ll be respected for it – because it can be confronting sometimes. An attribute of an alert and caring leader on the battlefield for over a hundred years is the evening visit to their troops just before sundown to engage, assess and communicate.
Make getting out to the ‘trenches’ a routine activity that has the same priority as the weekly management meeting.