How to Stop Company-Wide Games of Telephone

Like it or not, all companies suffer from an internal gossip grapevine. Here are the steps my company took to diffuse misinformation and foster healthy communication companywide.

June 13th, 2018   |    By: Tony Delmercado    |    Tags: Management, Communication, Success, Employees, Staff, Recruiting

Imagine stumbling across a Glassdoor review of your company filled with damaging declarations and seemingly unfounded statements. You’d be shocked, right? I know I was.

Our former employee’s description seemed so foreign, I didn’t recognize the company being described. According to the review, we were growing too fast, too furiously; we were operating in a knee-jerk manner.

It was clear the past employee wasn’t aware that we look to hyper-vet everything we do. Decisions are hardly made on whims; they’re quite nuanced. Of course, none of that matters to employees if they’re not hearing the truth.

Company-Wide Games of Telephone

What had happened? To make a long story short, complete miscommunication on our part.

We’re not the only business that’s dealt with miscommunication. A 2017 Dynamic Signal report noted 74 percent of survey participants believed they were being kept in the dark about essential on-the-job matters. People in that category tend to go to colleagues to fill in the puzzle pieces, and that’s when disconnects occur.

That’s how we realized it isn’t just the “what” we need to talk about; it’s the “why.”

Halting the Rumor Mill’s Furious Spin

Like it or not, all brands suffer from a grapevine. Still, you have a choice: Will yours be healthy or unhealthy?

Unhealthy grapevines take root in company gossip. They twist as colleagues share snippets of information and fill in blanks. These grapevines turn unreliable secondhand suggestions into facts, producing sour fruit best left to vinegar production.

In contrast, healthy grapevines blossom in communication-rich soil. Rather than thriving on innuendo, they grow on positive dialogue between departments and across siloes. The wine that comes from healthy grapevines isn’t just delectable; it attracts new talent.

To foster a healthy grapevine that limits workflow disruptions, employees must understand the “why” — the purpose — behind any decision. If your team members have the entire picture, they’re more likely to buy into what’s occurring. Plus, they don’t need to make up their own creative interpretations.

After discovering the Glassdoor review, our team took steps to ensure we could defuse the amount of misinformation being propagated.

Business Communication

Do the same by using these steps as springboards to devise your own method of slaying the game of “telephone”:

1. Ask managers to practice their team speeches with you.

You’re explaining a rollout program to a manager who is expected to send the information downstream. But are you sure he or she understands the point?

Many well-meaning managers don’t actively listen for purpose; they listen for outcome. Not surprisingly, they focus solely on those outcomes when they pass information to their teams.

To close this loophole, ask all managers to articulate their spiel to you first before sending them out the door. If the message is out of alignment with what you initially relayed, it’s an opportunity to say, “You’ve got the gist of it — the meat of the message — but the ‘why’ behind it is off.”

Finesse the message with your managers until you’re on the same page; then they can relay it to the rest of their team.

Do this consistently, and you’ll have a much better handle on what your employees are hearing from their supervisors. Plus, you’ll pass along a great skill to your managers, which helps others contextualize messages.

2. Know your company’s pulse with skip-level meetings.

Want to know what’s happening on the ground? Institute regular skip-level meetings, where you’re actually “skipping” team levels to learn more about other staff at your company.

You get the chance to meet with individuals you don’t normally work with, and they have an open forum to ask questions, bring up concerns, and present ideas.

Think skip-level meetings are superfluous? Make them a must-do anyway.

You’re probably not aware of what’s being said within the rank and file, and that’s exactly why you need this type of “crew” interaction.

How often should you host them? Initiate one for each project review, program rollout, service clarification, marketing campaign, etc.

Also, feel free to engage immediately at the first scent of trouble. For instance, we discovered that an unhealthy grapevine was threatening to strangle productivity and morale. By jumping into a skip-level session, I was able to clarify everything immediately.

3. Conduct weekly all-hands meetings.

Trying to get great people to stick around? ClearCompany research says offices that promote communication have half the turnover of their non-communicative counterparts. Be a pragmatic leader by making all-hands meetings a weekly experience.

Our Friday all-hands gatherings enable us to clarify, celebrate, and converse. They’re not just a platform for leaders to pontificate; they’re for everyone to learn. Quarterly, we incorporate personal and professional development workshops into the mix.

These meetings stop rumors rapidly, as was the case recently when employees discussed concern regarding an office move: Someone had seen a seating chart mock-up and didn’t approve; yet the mock-up wasn’t set in stone. It was for space requirement use alone.

4. Act with poise and purpose when unsavory stuff hits.

Let’s say you have an online review experience similar to ours. Don’t take it out on the reviewer. Instead, talk to the employee’s manager (if you know who the worker was, which is often easy to tell by verbiage and timing), and discuss what happened.

Your job isn’t to assume the worker was crazy, nor is it to assume your manager is incompetent. It’s to discern whether your team played a part in unintentional miscommunication.

As an example, if your reviewer claimed you didn’t offer bonuses or incentives — but you know you do — ensure your managers understands bonus and incentive perks. Then, ask existing team members whether they know about the programs. Perhaps everyone’s unclear about them, and that’s your opportunity to educate.

After your discovery, institute processes to correct future issues before they get out of hand.

As long as humans work at companies, rumor mills will exist, so being proactive counts for everything. Put processes in place ahead of time (using the steps above as a foundation), and your chances of fostering unhealthy grapevines will shrink.

As a leader, you owe it to all stakeholders to run an operation where everyone’s on the same page and not playing telephone.

About the Author

Tony Delmercado

Tony Delmercado is the COO at Hawke Media. He's a passionately curious entrepreneur, and all-around solid dude who enjoys building businesses, playing golf, improving his Krav Maga and jiujitsu game, writing, studying business tax loopholes, and eating Mexican food. He spends his weekends at the T&A Bungalow in Santa Monica hanging with his wife, Anthea; his sons, Onyx and Fox; and his dog, Naz.

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