The New Look Of Office Politics - Management
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The New Look Of Office Politics

Written By Marilyn Moats Kennedy

Article Date: 03-01-2005
Copyright (C) 2005 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Forget the grapevine. Use email, voice mail and a broadcast program.

Layoff rumors had moved through the company in waves during the past six months. Only those who were out on medical leave could possibly have missed them – or so management thought. Indeed, the CEO deliberately seeded the grapevine through his administrative assistant so employees couldn’t say they didn’t know the company was in trouble. Middle management had certainly heard the rumors many times. Imagine the director of engineering’s surprise when he said to one of his thirtysomething engineers, “I guess you knew what was coming when I scheduled this meeting.”

The engineer said, “No, what?”

Dropping back momentarily, the director said, “The grapevine’s been alive for months with the possibility of layoffs. Haven’t you heard those rumors?”

His subordinate’s reply: “This is unethical! I never listen to gossip. Why didn’t you tell me what was coming instead of surprising me? I’d have started job hunting months ago!”

One of the assumptions about organizational politics that’s no longer universally true is that when employees are talking at the water cooler or in the cafeteria, they are exchanging work-related intelligence. It’s rarely true. In fact, I’m convinced that the understanding of office politics in general, and sensitivity to the grapevine in particular, is age-related.

In focus groups, workers under 30 tell me they don’t want to hear any speculations or rumors because, “What can you do about that stuff anyway?” This attitude is not limited to engineers but cuts across occupational lines.

Most Baby Boomers, much as they deny it, believe a mastery of elementary office politics is necessary to survival. They know the grapevine is generally right and that people make and stroke allies, attempt to please their bosses, and honor the hierarchy.

A new generation of workers has emerged – with more to follow – who are deliberately, happily oblivious to organizational politics. They value plain talk and facts, and assume everyone else does, too.

Boomers always spoke contemptuously about people who played political games but many secretly admired the successful politicians and tried to emulate them. The younger generation is disdainful of anyone who’s good at politics and pities anyone who wants to be good at it. Net result: A crumbling and problematic informal system. Assumptions about what employees know, or should know, are due for a major overhaul.

There has always been a major discrepancy between the formal system (hierarchy and official documents) and the informal system (grapevine and relationships). Managers have used the grapevine as a break-it-to-them-gently tool for years but especially since the late-80s. That is, far from attempting to suppress rumors, managers have welcomed the buzz as a way of preparing the troops for change.

No one thought about a labor shortage projected to begin in 1997, so the possibility that key employees would jump ship at the first whiff of layoff rumors wasn’t a factor. Managers relied on office gossip to reach all but the most dedicatedly anti-social.

This can no longer be counted on. Among Busters, it’s fashionable to disbelieve all company intelligence whether it comes by memo or whisper. Workers under 30 are proud of the fact that they don’t rely on anything they’re told.

A 28-year-old marketing supervisor said, “My boss is in no position to promise anything to anyone or to verify a single fact. If the CEO decides to reorganize the place this week, he will. My boss has to worry about his own survival, not mine. When he swears something is gospel, I have no doubt he believes it – he’s not deliberately lying. However, that doesn’t make it true.”

Given this scenario, is it any wonder workers refer to company newsletters as The Fairy Tale Times? Forty- and fiftysomething workers have become more skeptical since the recession began in 1989 but most still listen to the grapevine, take it into account, and try to verify what they hear.

Younger workers simply stonewall. Amazingly, they show no curiosity about what's happening or what may happen. Lunch-time conversations are more apt to cover the merits of various aluminum bicycle frames than buzz from the executive suite.

Part of this withdrawal may be the refusal of younger workers to engage emotionally in the life of the organization. Most keep their bags packed in case they don't have jobs next month or next week. 

Just as they are quick to ask, when offered a job, how many hours per week the hirer expects and then to compare offers based on a calculation of pay per hour, the factory-worker mentality colors involvement.

"Why should I care what's going on outside my department? I can get another job if I have to," is a far more common sentiment than top management believes.

The real problem for the organization isn't that younger workers will resent being surprised or that they distrust the manager's unofficial knowledge, but that everything a manager wants them to know has to be delivered one-on-one - if not in person, then by voice or email. 

Younger workers have a touching faith in the reliability of voice mail and e-mail. Both are part of the formal system and are considered credible sources, unlike the grapevine. However, not being able to seed the grapevine means more work for the manager. With ever-widening spans of control, how much time will it take to warn each worker of important changes to come?

However, my experience indicates that peer communication among the twentysomethings does have credibility. Convince one worker that change is imminent and that worker can convince peers that it's true. 

And, these people are literal to the extreme. When a Boomer says to a peer, "I hear the consultants have been called in," the second Boomer knows change is coming. When a Boomer says the same thing to a Buster, the Buster hears a literal truth with no implications. Using subject/verb/object sentences for every communication will tax any Boomer manager simply because the style is foreign. Used to people who read between the lines, it's annoying to have to spell everything out - do it anyway.

Use email, voice mail and a broadcast program. Don't suggest. Separate facts from suppositions. If the division isn't doing well, younger employees won't necessarily have seen it in the media unless that fact has been aired on the Internet. Don't feel obliged to share your ideas on what may happen. If you keep the troops informed on facts, you've done the right thing. 

Why bother? Why use a different communications style for younger workers instead of demanding they behave like older workers or face the consequences? Because younger workers can and will punish bosses who don't keep them informed directly. Upward evaluation is not just a management nightmare but a growing reality in all kinds of organizations. 

Second, the mobility of younger workers has increasing velocity and failure to communicate can mean failure to retain the people you need. It will also result in greater distancing the individual from the organization. The year 1975 was a very low birthrate year and in 1997 it was impossible to hire workers who were never born. 

So, even when you believe no one who breathes could have missed the latest corporate intelligence, do a reality check. A casual, "Did you hear?" can save your reputation with someone who, however deliberately, didn't.

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Article Categories:  Human Resources  »  Management