It was a typical day for Pete, a division manager who oversees the work of 1200 employees for a large multinational enterprise. Like many others, the day was full of meetings, deadlines and urgent tasks, when one issue rose above the rest: rumors had surfaced that the company was planning on selling off one of its subsidiaries and would then reorganize the remainder of the company. The source of the rumor: a leading industry blog. Pete had a staff meeting with his direct reports planned for later in the day to make the announcement, but the grapevine had already beaten him to the punch.
The evolving role of leaders in the information age
The company grapevine is nothing new, but it now has a super-charged conduit via social technologies. Leaders have always played a key role in disseminating information to their teams. Now, with the increased speed and access that employees have to information, the emphasis for leaders has shifted from that of acquiring and sharing information with employees to the interpretation and assimilation of that data. As shown by Pete’s story, the information now comes from multiple (and potentially uncontrolled) sources and often puts the leader in a reactive position.
Now, more than ever, it’s key for leaders to help give context to the information that employees have in their possession so they can make meaning of what they’re learning. In Pete’s case, because he was a latecomer to the information sharing, he did not have the chance to frame the information in a way that was best for the audience receiving it. Therefore, when he did lead his staff meeting, he had to start with: “I understand that some of you have heard X; here’s what this means to all of us.”
Helping employees navigate the company grapevine
Living with ambiguity is tough, and many of us aren’t that great at operating in the uncertainty, so we work extremely hard to draw conclusions – even outlandish ones – just to have something to hang our hat on. People crave answers, especially when a sudden, uncertain future appears before them.
Absent any concrete information, employees often turn to the most readily available (but potentially inaccurate) source of information: the company grapevine. And given that nearly half of people put more credence in the grapevine than what the head of their company publicly states, it’s a communication channel not to be trifled with. Moreover, leaders must take special care with so-called “deskless” employees because they tend to prefer to get their information from their colleagues. It’s up to leaders to help their team members not only with context, but with connecting the dots: “here’s what this means to you.”
Six ways a leader can connect the dots when sharing information
Ask: “What do you think this means?” Leaders are always surprised to hear the variety of interpretations that people ascribe to the “same” data. Listen for misinformation and be sure to clarify inaccurate data.
Discuss how this information will impact the team’s daily work. Identify to what degree the information being discussed will cause a disruption in team members’ daily work tasks. Identify a plan to help minimize the disruption.
Connect it back to your group’s goals. This is especially important if the information doesn’t seem relevant to the team. Help them see how what they do on a daily basis does connect to the information.
Ask: “Who else needs to know this?” Often, key groups are overlooked or are brought into the loop late. Your team most likely can help you find the key players who may not yet know information necessary to help your team make an informed decision.
Have some fun with the grapevine. One especially clever leader I know helped her team ease the anxiety of an impending change by asking team members to name the most outlandish rumors that had surfaced related to the change. Not only does this acknowledge the existence of a grapevine, but it can help alleviate the stress associated with inaccuracies of the rumor mill.
Keep it on the front burner. Before wrapping up the meeting, ask, “When should we reconnect to revisit this issue?” By keeping the issue from fading into the sunset, you signal to your team that you’re committed to helping them work through the issue at hand.
There’s little leaders can do to slow the speed with which information now travels throughout the workplace. With some advance planning, and a nod to human nature, they can however be prepared to help their teams wade through the onslaught of information in a way that builds team confidence and camaraderie.