Idle Rumors Add to Well-Founded Apprehensions

Employee perceptions are powerfully shaped by the question:

“What do work place interactions, both those directly affecting me and the observed interactions of others, mean to my circumstances?”

Leaders must understand questions like this and how employee thinking works overall. This understanding is critical for leaders because it is a:

  • Source of individual actions and team performance,
  • Important determinate of output and organizational performance
  • Vital part of organizational culture.

Employee thinking is actually what creates the “attitudes” part of my definition of organizational culture. This in turn helps to form habits and practices and ultimately determine organizational performance. Thinking drives perceptions (both good and bad), which inextricably connect subordinates to their leaders and enterprise.

Human beings are always thinking. Our minds are constantly at work: observing, orienting, deciding, and acting, then starting the process all over again.  Employees probably spend a quarter of their lives at, or involved with work.  Next to friends and family, it is the part of their lives that occupies them most, an area to which they devote considerable thought and attention. Leaders need to understand that:

“Observing, Orienting, and Deciding” are critical employee behaviors and ones that employers need to support.  Because they drive acting, work and production.

“Acting” is the employees’ value propositions for the employer, the production component of the work place, the individual and collective production element of organizational performance that all employees contribute.

“Orienting, Deciding, Production, Work, Acting” are driven by what is observed from personal and second hand interactions and the "rumor mill".

In my last post I described how employees internalize both personal and second hand interactions.  A third and lesser-understood internalization is what employees do in the absence of credible information, aka the "rumor mill".  In a vacuum of feedback and communications from their leaders; they simply “fill in the gaps” with their imaginations, usually fueled by rumors, incorrect suppositions, and visualizations (generally free of fact and context).  Of the three kinds of interactions; (1) personal, (2) second hand observation, and (3) assumed/imagined/supposed-the last one is the least reliable. It is the least likely to have facts, context, and substance. It is also the one that occupies significant employee time and attention because the mind is always at work.

Like the analyses that the employees applies to personal and second hand encounters, they also conduct a very personal and unconscious analysis of assumed/imagined/supposed matters/events and what it means to them:

“Is it good for me?  Bad for me?  What happens to me next?  Why?  How?  When?  What’s the benefit for me? What are the downsides for me?”

This is the orienting part of the process; “What does it mean to me?” From this comes deciding and acting, the output of business and organizational performance.

A powerful example of the power of rumors, their destructive forces, and how to prevent them comes from the military justice system.  In the Armed Forces minor offenses are heard, adjudged and punished in a process called an "Article 15 proceeding" by the Commanding Officers of the organization.  When a member of the unit first runs afoul of regulation the inevitable rumors start among the peers of the person involved.  These usually inflate the nature of the alleged offense from its actual seriousness, imagining the worst, spreading and conflating; causing real damage to the reputation of an individual who has not yet been officially heard by the leadership.  Added to this are conjectures as to the supposed miscreant's ultimate fate and likelihood of eternal condemnation and outright damnation by the Commander. As a commander, I knew these dynamics well and swiftly resolved the case with maximum transparency, even making the Article 15 hearing public to members of the squadron.  They could see for themselves what the facts were and how the commander (me) heard, considered, and judged the facts and law.  I knew that most imagined themselves in front of their commander and were asking themselves if the process was fair from their own perspective.  I made sure it was.  Fast, fair, and based on the law and facts so that everyone understood reality; not rumors.

For leaders, the lesson is the vital importance of constant, effective communication with the work force at all levels. The communication must be precise, credible, and on terms that relate to the many audiences in an organization.  Later on, we’ll talk about how to do that.

In my next post I’ll talk about employee expectations of leaders; most leaders have no idea how high they really are.

I ask my readers to share their thoughts, concerns and observations.

Many thanks, Keith Stalder, #11

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