How far are you willing to go to know what’s really going on in your business?
A few years ago, I was at an industry educational event with a Californian named Joe as the keynote speaker. He was a renowned management wizard, and the unhealthiest looking human I’ve ever seen, like Steve Buscemi after a month-long meth bender.
Scraggly grey hair. Yellow teeth and eyes. Semi-translucent skin, like the belly of one of those creepy fish that live in the dark in deep ocean trenches.
We all tried to estimate how old he was. The general consensus was mid-50s. On the break, he joined the smokers outside in the alley. I’m not a smoker, but I dropped into the chat. Turned out Joe was 39.
Reeling from this shock, we turned the subject to the cigs. We assumed he must have started on unfiltered Camels at age nine to inflict that sort of damage.
“Interesting story,” he said, “I didn’t smoke until about eight years ago.”
He became operations manager of a large Bay Area firm, and while he was doing all the right things, something was amiss. His initiatives were getting no traction.
A few weeks of investigation later: “I realised all the important information was exchanged by the smokers, gathered around the dumpster out the back of the loading dock,” he said.
So Joe tried hanging around the dumpster, trying to strike up casual chats off the official grid. No deal. The Secret Smoking Clan weren’t giving up their information to any nicotine-free imposter.
“So I took up smoking. After that, I knew everything that was going on, and the company ran just fine.”
Eight years of generating solid returns for the shareholders of that firm — he was an employee — had turned him into an X-Files character.
Don’t do that.
Informal communication can cancel your strategies
If you’re a manager, and you don’t understand the informal communication channels in your business, they will cancel out your grand plans.
It’s always been tricky, more so now with remote work.
Should you create a Virtual Smokers’ Dumpster online hangout? Perhaps not, though that would be hilarious, and if you do it let me know.
Informal conversations are a strong barometer of the health of your business. You can tell the quality of an organisation by how they talk when management isn’t in the room.
In good businesses, staff have each others’ backs. If that unsupervised switch flicks to complaining and eye rolls, it’s a problem.
I’ve spoken to people in businesses where sub-groups of staff now have their own off-grid Zoom chats to complain about the state of things.
Remote work is a rich environment for paranoia to thrive.
‘Nobody tells us anything.’
‘We’re always the last to know.’
And so on.
If we’ve learnt anything over the last decade, it’s that isolated, purely-online people are attracted to batshit-crazy ideas.
Get everyone together or else
The more open you are as managers, the less power informal channels have to derail you.
No matter how much your people love remote work, it’s essential to get them together.
Physically, like the herd animals we are.
(Welcome back, Melbourne lockdown heroes. It seems you’re allowed to do this with some precautions).
It was always important, but never more than now as uncertainty rules.
We have physical all-staff meetings at least every couple of months, depending on how many hot issues there are at the time.
An essential part of that is letting everyone have their say on whatever they like, without the fear of punishment or future management vendettas.
No time limits. We’d rather have it all out in the open.
It’s usually the same people who speak up. That’s human nature. You never know if they’re acting as a spokesperson for the silent majority, or if it’s just their view.
Doesn’t matter, it’s always productive.
We might not always agree with everything, but we value hearing it all.
It’s their reality, and if you suppress it, it grows. In their mind, then in dark chatrooms that you don’t know about.
Then you end up with a grim, cynical organisation. Where people don’t feel they can come to you with a problem.
And that’s a dirty, smoky old dumpster of a business model.
This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.