Why whispering is the biggest cause of organizational dysfunction
I have seen lots of different causes and symptoms of organizational dysfunction in my career. Task interdependence, a difference in values or beliefs, the absence of clear rules or standards, resource scarcity, ineffective communication, and unrealistic or ineffective goals. The one that I’ve found to be most painful is whispering. By whispering I mean both figurative and literal whispering. I’ll illustrate both with the same real example, and discuss how I addressed it in the moment, why that was wrong, and how I deal with it today.
A few years ago we had a new teammate join the startup where I was CEO — we will call him Adam. He was in a relatively senior role. Adam was smart, had relevant experience and quickly made some work friends. He could turn on charisma in a way that made you want him to like you.
Within a week the whispering began. At first it was figurative whispering about colleagues. He would get one person, almost always just one, in a conference room, close the door and say to Person X: “Hey, I really don’t think Y is pulling their weight.” It was always a peer, sometimes someone who was in a similar role, and rarely someone upon whom Adam depended. It seemed to have little value other than gossip — initially.
Over the ensuing weeks and months that behavior evolved. Adam began to criticize more than a dozen people in conversations with 12-15 other colleagues. Soon more than half the company was involved as either the confidant or the target of Adam’s criticisms. More than a few times, Adam went to Person A about B, and then went to B about A. At one point he went to me about my co-founder, and vice-versa. The “whispering” was figurative. These conversations took place in meeting rooms. After several weeks, multiple people were coming to me for advice about how to handle these approaches by Adam. In certain cases two people, on both ends of the wrath of Adam, would come to me independently, not knowing Adam was having the same conversation about them with the other person.
After a month, the conversations were so frequent that Adam sometimes didn’t bother to get a conference room. He would just whisper (literally) with colleagues. You could walk by his pod of desks, see the whispering from 15 feet away, and it would stop 100% of the time when you got within about five feet. Usually the whispering would clearly shift to an obviously awkward filler topic (“Yeah so how about those Warriors….”). In nine years of being CEO at CircleUp, the only complaints I ever received about whispering — figurative or literal — were about Adam.
For many months we responded to this behavior in ineffective ways. I am ashamed of that. When Adam would come to me to complain about others, I would try to listen to the complaints and help him problem-solve. I indirectly or directly encouraged others to do the same. By entertaining the conversations, I perpetuated them. Equally destructive, I was creating a wedge between Adam and the people involved.
When A goes to B about C, a few things happen. A and B both feel on the inside of a secret. It’s gossip, and much like grade school it feels exciting at first. There is a shot of adrenaline to be on the receiving side of that gossip. But it also creates a few dysfunctions that will continue to fester. B is forced with a choice: should she align with A or report the complaint to C? In our situation, Adam (A) put difficult pressure on B — sometimes even outright lying through comments like: “By the way, C has been saying really bad things about you.” At best these conversations prevent bonds from forming and at worst they create meaningful divides. B and C may previously have had a productive relationship. But now that B has entertained the conversation with A, she feels alienated from C. Similarly, it reinforces a wedge between A and C.
After an embarrassing amount of time in this toxic spiral, we brought in a management coach. Through that we developed a strategy: we will always, unless there are clear legal issues, simply pull in the parties mentioned. If A goes to B about C, B now knows that our cultural policy is to immediately ask A that C be directly included in the conversation. If A refuses, then it is our cultural norm that B not entertain the conversation with A. It is uncomfortable. It is difficult to do. And it worked.
Initially Adam responded exceptionally poorly. B would respond that we needed to pull in C. Adam then would go to X, Y and Z and complain about B. B sometimes would know this was happening, or be worried it would happen, and then wonder if they should just entertain Adam’s complaints, rather than run the risk of Adam badmouthing them to others. It took many reiterations and reinforcements, in front of the entire company and in private, that we would not entertain whispering. We talked openly about our culture value of ‘Do It Right’, and what that meant. In this case it meant encouraging A and C to talk directly. B could offer to join if helpful, but the key was not saying things about C that you wouldn’t say with C in the room.
The destructive behavior lasted for probably the first 9 months of Adam’s career at our company. I am deeply ashamed I didn’t act with more force sooner. It then took more than a year to unwind the pattern, not only through Adam, but through other — particularly more junior — employees that had picked up the behavior as well. It was unquestionably the most destructive thing that happened to our culture in nine years.
I wish I had brought in a management coach earlier (it was before I was going to mine, and I just didn’t think of it). I wish I had talked in more depth with other CEOs about how they had handled similar problems earlier (I was embarrassed). I wish I had done some research on the topic, but frankly it’s hard to know what to look for. I wish I had just pushed Adam more firmly to talk directly with each person. It would have saved a lot of spinning and a lot of pain. Had those types of attempts not worked, I wish I had made a difficult decision to part ways with Adam much sooner than I did. It would have saved all of us, including him, a great deal of pain if we had just realized much sooner than we did that it wasn’t the right fit.