Silence, mortals.

Quick quiz: is the communications discipline a unique function, or is it integrated throughout a business?

Answer: both.

(Did I mention I have a law degree? Lots of my answers are variations on the theme of “it depends.”)

Digging deeper into the question, communication is always happening at all levels of a business. Unfortunately, what is communicated is often what the communicator would never intend. For example, silence is a form of communication, and a particularly pernicious one to many leaders. In the face of management’s silence, employees see only actions. In the absence of verbal messages to modulate these actions, they interpret, speculate, and talk.

Or, in other words, they gossip. When this gossip is handed from person to person, it gains an unmerited patina of credibility. As they’re waiting for a meeting to start, Robynn says to Neville, “I don’t know what’s going on upstairs, but there was a big meeting the other day that wasn’t on the usual management calendar: maybe we’re being spun off.” Later in the day, Neville turns to Fiona and says, “I’ve heard that we might be spun off,” while they’re both waiting for the microwave to free up. Two days later, in response to Chris’ frustrated rant, Fiona tells him, “They’re spinning us out.” In three easy leaps, like that grade school game of “telephone,” a bit of idle speculation is turned into an expensive problem as employees spend their workdays being distracted, worried, and unsettled instead of committing their energies to the corporate problems they are paid to solve.

Can managers always tell employees everything? The short answer is no. The long answer is a complicated and situational mix of what is sensitive, what is useful, and what is mission-critical. But a manager who continually and proactively communicates with staff gains a measure of credibility and a short period of silence is less likely to be filled with fevered speculation and gossip. The main key is the cultivation of a key question: “Who needs to know this?”

This sounds tremendously simple, it’s true – and once it is a habit firmly ingrained, it is simple. But like all good habits, it takes a lot of cultivation. Not every piece of information needs to be communicated to every person, and in the same way every time. Where many managers realize the need for communication in the big, sweeping situations, they often miss the opportunities for communications on smaller issues. The question that needs to become ingrained is, Who needs to know?

A compliment at a senior staff meeting on a project that is being handled by a subset of the manager’s staff? Who needs to know? At the bare minimum, the leader of that project should know. One approach: an e-mail to all staff members on the project, letting them know that their efforts are being noticed.

A technological change that might have some impact on the manager’s IT department? Who needs to know? IT is the obvious port of call here, but managing downstream effects is important also. Therefore, a call or quick meeting with the IT manager to make sure any necessary transition is handled smoothly – and communicated to those end-users affected might be in order.

A staff change at a major competitor? Who needs to know? What member of the manager’s staff is going to find this piece of information useful to fine-tune their approach to their job?

The daily result of such constant communication is trust. And when the spin-out is contemplated but can’t be communicated downstream yet and silence is necessary at the moment, that trust is going to be extremely valuable.

About Jill