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A Culture of Whispers

Most of us have had the following experience: you enter a room where colleagues are working and you find people speaking in hushed tones, usually huddled around a desk or cubicle space. Or perhaps when they sense another person has entered the room, they drop the volume of their voices from a normal conversational tone to a whisper – until they determine if the person who just entered can be trusted. If they are deemed trustworthy, they return to a normal volume; if they make the determination that the person is not to be trusted, they either return to whispering or abandon the surreptitious conversation altogether. Any organization that has these sorts of huddled, whispering conversations has a problem: they have a “Culture of Whispers.”

A Culture of Whispers always exists in organizations characterized by distrust, suspicion and poor esprit de corps. It is a clear signal of organizational silos, where one segment of an organization communicates poorly or rarely to the point of that their unfamiliarity with one another sows mistrust and disconnection.** A Culture of Whispers is one of the first signs of an organization that is descending into dysfunction. It is akin to someone having a persistent fever: something is wrong and, if left unchanged, will lead to disastrous results. The genesis of a Culture of Whispers is almost always due to poor or ineffective leadership and is common among Level 1, Level 2 or even Level 3 Leaders (Bad, Status Quo and Competent, in that order). It tells the leader, that there is work to be done – by you.

Of the many hallmarks of the True Leader, harmony, organizational trust, and strong esprit de corps are chief among them.

The most effective way to eliminate a Culture of Whispers is to understand the conditions that exist within an organization that create it. What are the conditions that must exist within an organization that result in the reduction and eventual elimination of a Culture of Whispers?

· A consistent, open, and effective system of communication exists. All stakeholders have an authentic opportunity to express themselves and their needs.

· A system of accountability that is ruthlessly consistent. Leadership that holds all stakeholders – including the leadership itself – accountable avoids the cancer that is caused by claims of preferential treatment. The rules are for everyone.

· Leadership models active listening. Venues of communication are structured so all stakeholders may, if they choose, be heard and listened to. Everyone has a voice.

· Proaction is favored over reaction. “Staying ahead of the curve” by consistently looking ahead and around to perceive the winds of change so course adjustments can be enacted.

· When the organization faces significant challenges, all stakeholders are informed by leadership. Solutions are sought collaboratively, including from those who are not formally in leadership roles. What people don’t know will be filled with rumor and innuendo.

· Stakeholders are given opportunities to share power. Leadership works to model and communicate that responsibility and power are inextricably linked.

· A clear chain-of-command is embedded in the organizational culture. When stakeholders feel thwarted by immediate supervisors, there is a legitimate system for appeal that is clearly understood and consistently followed by all.

When I started as the leader of an organization (where I subsequently stayed for 18 years), one of the first things I noticed when I arrived was that the organization had a well-developed Culture of Whispers. Fortunately, I understood the immense value of being the 1st Universal Law of True Leadership: building and maintaining relationships. I understood that I, as the top leader, was compelled to enable access to communication with me. I didn’t wait for people to be so frustrated that they scheduled an appointment with me to get it off their chest. Handling business “on the run” was my norm: I operated with John Peter’s MBWA (Management By Walking Around) wherein my physical movement all over the workplace was so thorough, literally any and all employees saw me multiple times during the day. Anyone that said, “I’ve been trying to see you” was either blind, hyperbolic or not trying very hard.

Since I worked the top of the org chart, I was “The New Boss.” I recall walking into the Faculty Dining Room on my first day and sitting down at the table with 10-12 other people. I respectfully took a place at the table. After a couple of uncomfortable moments – The Former Boss had rarely sat and broken bread with his minions – they began to relax and chat normally. When I heard one of them say, complaining about a decision leadership had made, “they decided” or “they did this,” I asked straightforwardly: “Who is this ‘they’? Are you referring to me or one of the other leaders?” Silence. Then one of them offered: “Well, yeah…” and then explained what their concern was about. I listened carefully, restating their concern. Then I said I’d look into it and get back to that person within 24 hours with a follow-up. When word got out that I actually listened to concerns (which were often misunderstandings and the result of poor communication) and followed up according to their schedule, not mine, word spread like wildfire: “The New Boss is respectful, actually listens and follows through. He takes us seriously.” I modeled behavior that I expected everyone else to model, too. People thrive in a workplace where fairness and mutual practiced. Those who participated in gossip either ceased to do so or did so away from the workplace.

Within a few weeks, the Culture of Whispers disappeared.

©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.

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