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  • John Chambers, PhD

Turn the lights on

Incidents are in the enterprise, and we all own them. We do. Especially at the executive level. We can collaborate or we can assign blame. Cue on, “If we just get rid of that guy....”

If it were only that easy. Operational or strategic efforts don’t fall to one individual. Success isn’t singular. And it isn’t anywhere in life.

This isn’t a call to be assimilated into some sci-fi collective called the corporation but, rather, an understanding that we are one team. That’s yet another we-already-know-that. Then why are there so many whispers in hallways, smirks at break time in the board room, rolling eyes? They are all poison to the culture.

Have you walked by an office and, as you are noticed in the hallway, the conversation's decibel level drops by 80%? Perhaps they were discussing an unfortunate “rightsizing”. Maybe the chat was about a performance review, or an HR issue surrounding privacy. Maybe the chat you interrupted, simply by your passing by, was about repositioning a departmental cost center or a management leader. It would be nice if that’s all it was. But there aren’t than many episodes. Usually it comes down to one thing – gossip and criticism. Somehow….

“Franz is screwing up…. although, don’t get me wrong, I like Franz...” I guess the person likes ‘screw-ups.’

“You know, she gets the pass, of course, because she had one success that we keep hearing about for years...”

“Well, it’s no surprise because he manages upwards and won’t give you a straight answer…”

Of course, those are the tame ones, less vitriolic than the….

“Clueless moron.”

“Background was in geology, now tell me what the hell that has to do with operations?”

“Just between me and you, the marketing head is really a —“

Makes me wonder, why is it “just between me and you”? Should I take this to my grave? Nobody ever does.

What is the point of that statement? What is gained by sharing that opinion with another, who in turn will probably not keep it between me and you?

If anything is certain, “between me and you” is a lighted match next to a dried out grapevine. Comments catch fire, morph and spread, and what’s to be gained? Nothing, but much is to be lost in a culture that should be focused on achievement via openness.

If folks are whispering then dollars to donuts they’re not solving a process problem or a strategic nor tactical objective. If deliberation occurs that requires sensitivity, due to personnel impacts or corporate decisions that must follow the rigorous code of need-to-know disclosure, then it requires a closed door. It doesn’t seem credible that the corporate secrets are being considered when someone is hanging over the side of a cube wall whispering words that accompany the talker’s shifting eyes, looking for any eavesdroppers. And even in the office confines, is the conversation surrounded by deliberate objectivity and goodwill, even in disagreement or assessment of another human being?

One of the most challenging skills is the ability to separate personalities from objectives. Naturally there are skill sets that vary from one professional to another. I certainly would hesitate to assign a quiet and hyper-subdued personality to motivational speaking. And is that something I should be embarrassed to state? Shall I suddenly become a whispering mouse when I am offering a professional and reflective opinion of an individual’s skill set? Certainly not. Conversely, should that kind of assessment about another be shouted out? Of course not. But if you are discussing a sensitive subject, then get in your office. Or find one. What is the secret you are trying to protect?

Many corporations tout transparency and teamwork, which seems to stay on the corporate internal web site, but hardly is manifested when some folks act like contestants on the Survivor TV show.

If the conversation isn’t elevating the company performance or contributing to supporting objectives, then what is the point? I guess some might feel better by looking down on another. There are few professionals and executives who will never but never say a bad word about another person. I wish I could count myself among them.

If you want a culture of transparency and openness, then turn the lights on. Eschew the whispers. Note the number of times that conversational decibel level goes from about 35 to 15. Set the example.

And this ain’t between me and you.

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