Communication Style Drives Corporate Culture 2/3/2012
Guest Article
By: Barbara Lezotte, APR

The office was buzzing. The company’s president has just sent word that all staff should gather in the lobby for an announcement in less than an hour. Most work came to a halt on the two floors that housed about 25 people. Small groups began to converge here and there. Inter-office emails sped from computer to computer.

I bet we’re merging with another company!” One employee speculated. “I think he’s decided to retire,” another pondered. “Wonder who will take over!” “Maybe we’re closing one of our offices,” suggested someone else. “What if we’re going out of business?” another fretted. “Perhaps we just landed a big, new account,” countered another. “Or we lost one!”

By the time the group was assembled in the front lobby, the air was electric, the tension palpable. With expectant faces, the employees anxiously awaited the news they were sure would have a major impact on their jobs, careers and paychecks. The president entered, and took note of the anticipation he had created.

I’ve just heard some news that the media doesn’t even know yet,” he said smiling. “But it will probably be on the news tonight.” And he proceeded to inform us about some political gossip involving the private life of a high level public official. It was the proverbial lead balloon. The group stared, dumbfounded that the news they had been herded together to hear did not directly impact them, was announced almost gleefully and that at least 25 hours of individual productivity had been wasted.

Those in attendance learned something about the corporate culture of their particular organization that day. The president had sent a clear message that gossip is valued and encouraged and that it takes precedence over the work employees were hired to do. The incident also underscores the speed and power of the office grapevine.

The story is instructive for leaders in all types of organizations, who set the tone for the culture in which their managers and employees operate. When leaders condone gossip and other less-than professional standards in the workplace, it can become a destructive dynamic that affects productivity, morale and, ultimately, success in a competitive marketplace.

Employees who feel free to talk about one another’s work performance, personal business or politics -- in ways that are often hurtful -- can be divisive forces in the organization. To protect themselves from those they perceive as threatening, workers may feel the need to form cliques and alliances. They become more focused on advancing their personal agendas or insulating themselves from being hurt by others.

Conflicts are magnified and create mistrust, dissention and an inability to work as a team to accomplish the goals of the organization. In organizations where such behavior is allowed, some workers who play the game well tend to profit, while others reap the negative consequences of the dysfunctional culture. In the end, they all lose, because the organization finds it difficult to compete when it is self-destructing.

In the aforementioned example, the company president set the tone. His actions, whether conscious or not, telegraphed to his employees that rumor, innuendo and speculation are tools of the trade and can be used at will. Employees who enter such a culture must decide if they will play by the accepted rules or hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior.

Contrast the negative scenario with one in which a high standard of respect for employees and co-workers is practiced, gossip is not tolerated and communication is used positively to convey the goals and challenges the organization needs to achieve. Employees are gathered regularly for two-way communication. Leaders and managers share information that will help employees become more knowledgeable about the organization, the industry and the competition. Co-workers are encouraged to value each other for their respective strengths and support each other when there are weaknesses. Anyone who either knowingly or unwittingly undermines a co-worker is made to understand that such behavior weakens the entire organization. Such a culture must be developed by leadership and modeled every day on the job. Workers must be given the tools, through communication, to resolve the conflicts, which are bound to arise.

Communication is a powerful force that is often overlooked when organizations evaluate why they can’t seem to succeed. It’s easier to blame outside competition, market forces or outdated technology. Although turning around a negative culture is a daunting task; it must begin with laying a new foundation of positive communication based on respect for every member of the organization. Strong leadership with a backbone of professionalism is the first step.

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