Communications promotes harmony
Winslow Wong 

A FRIEND, Peter, once worked in a large company that was going through some obvious troubles. Almost everyone knew something bad was brewing, but the management tried keeping the employees in the dark and pretended all was fine.

But one fateful day, the inept CEO was replaced by someone bossy who enjoyed terrorising employees.

Two weeks after joining, he started marginalising two senior managers who had served the company loyally for over 10 years each.

He humiliated and treated them with no respect. They were made redundant in a very unprofessional way and left on bitter terms.

Many employees hated the new CEO as his leadership – or the lack of it – was worse than his predecessor’s.

When briefing staff on projects, he was vague and unsure of what he wanted, leaving the managers scrambling to hold things together.

Suddenly the chief operating officer was asked to leave too. He was told not to inform the staff and just not turn up for work the next morning.

The toxic atmosphere soon bred fear and distrust, and the workplace became a cauldron of rumours.

Everybody seemed ready, even eager, to believe whatever bad news was carried through each new round of gossip. Staff morale plunged.

Most started looking for jobs, and when Peter went for interviews, the first question he was asked was why he had left his last place of employment.

He had a hard time trying not to badmouth the company and remain positive, although most people in the industry knew the company was in deep trouble.

At least 20 employees jumped ship in just two months and when Peter told the CEO he was leaving too, he was childishly bitter, called him into his office and said, “Peter, you just missed a promotion”. Peter didn’t give in to his bait and left anyway.

The ugly episode at Peter’s previous company reminded me of the 1999 movie Office Space.

Aside from its satirical humour, the movie was successful partly because it portrayed three average Joes who work in a situation that most of us can relate to.

Initech is the quintessential company with poor management, bad communication and low employee morale.

On a more serious note, the movie offered some powerful lessons as well. One of them which resonated with many of us is never to keep employees in the dark.

Arguably, one of the funniest characters in the movie is the quirky guy named Milton, who was always bullied and treated unfairly by his suffocating manager Lumbergh.

He shows up for work every day unaware he has been fired, but eventually, he got his vengeance and the last laugh!

The lesson for us – from the hilarious movie and the bitter saga at Peter’s previous company – is that timely and accurate communication is essential to building and sustaining good organisations.

You’d think that, with so many ways to communicate, our ability to do so would improve. But the opposite seems to be true.

As technology advances, the quality of communication has seemingly declined.

You’ve probably heard the expression “feeling like a mushroom,” which means having a feeling of being kept in the dark, uninformed and fed a bunch of shxx (think shiitake mushrooms). Hence the concept of mushroom management.

Also known as pseudo-analysis or blind development, the mocking term is used to describe the running of an organisation where communication channels between management and employees hardly work.

The term alludes to the stereotypical, and somewhat inaccurate view of mushroom cultivation i.e. kept in the dark and periodically given a load of manure.

Mushroom management often develops when managers see themselves as the sole decision-makers within the organisation, rather than those who lead employees towards a shared success.

This can often take place unintentionally. Managers fear their employees will discover important new ideas instead of them, which drives the former to make bad decisions and prevent employees from taking an active role in their work.

As a result, the employees end up doing work in a mechanical, repeated fashion, without contributing in a more productive or active way.

By keeping employees in the dark, it’s a matter of time before you lose their trust and send their minds spiralling into panic and thinking of worst case scenarios.

When employees don’t get the information they require, including the answers to four fundamental questions – Where are we going? What are we doing to get there? How can I contribute? and What’s in it for me? – they tend to make their own assumptions and judgments which are usually worst-case scenarios.

If allowed to fester, the lack of information and unanswered questions can lead to the “silence spiral” among employees, which undermines trust and puts a damper on their passion.

In most cases, it happens rapidly, and before you know it, it’s already spreading like wildfire. Hush-hush meetings behind closed doors – sometimes involving consultants and even total strangers – vague replies to honest questions, unreciprocated greetings in the elevator, and late payments of salaries are among the likely triggers.

All these are enough to open the door of doubt in employees’ minds.

Business owners and managers must use every interaction, meeting, and communiqué as an opportunity to discuss openly and honestly with employees.

Always provide regular and real-time progress updates, particularly in times of change such as downsizing or restructuring.

When employees see how they and the organisation are progressing, engagement and productivity increase as they no longer they feel like mushrooms.

There’s a whole slew of internal communication tools which one can use to disseminate timely and accurate information to employees. Emails, newsletters, one-on-one chats and town hall meetings are examples.

With open communication, employees know where the organisation is going, how specific plans are working and, most importantly, how they fit into them.

You should never leave a vacuum of information as business rivals, disgruntled ex-employees or even current ones who are ignorant, unhappy or just out to create trouble, are ever so ready to fill that vacuum with all kinds of rumours, innuendos and even guesswork.

So be smart and keep your employees in the loop!

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 274.