The whisper of a new manager at our early childhood centre has sent the rumour mill into overdrive. Who is she? How will she change us? How will her ideas about teaching and learning mesh with our team? Will our special character be subsumed into a franchise type service where one centre is the same as another? These are just some of the questions we, as a teaching team, are asking. Judging by her online profile, our new manager is very skilled and professional, her probing and insightful questions have ensured some rapid thought about our practices – the way we do things around here – with a view to improvement. We need all our staff to welcome her – and her new ideas for improvement of our teaching practice – in a positive manner. So how to cope with the rumour mill?

I found this great article by Steve Tringham on the website  about getting control of the rumour mill and making communication work for us in a positive manner.

Below is most of it as I found it so helpful in consolidating my ideas about how to ensure the new manager is recieved well and her ideas are listened to.

It seems that one of the hardest thing to do in any organisation is communicate effectively. Even when things are calm and stable it seems to be almost impossible to get a clear message about what we are doing and why up, down and across an organisation. So when the plan is to change something, is it surprising that confusion, frustration and disappointment are the dominant themes?

The result? FUD – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Fear that it won’t work, fear that it will be much worse than now etc, Uncertainty about every aspect of what will happen to people “on the ground”, and Doubt about the outcome and impact. And then the change initiators who usually have a hard job anyway get frustrated that no one is supporting them.

In a typical change project, there is a clear need for the change and the people at the top are pushing it through. But on the ground there is a very different experience. There is often a lack of energy behind defining clear messages that are relevant and communicated. As a change manager, I spend a great deal of my time meeting teams and trying to answer some of the same questions that everyone asks. Sometime this is exacerbated by a lack of decisions. These pending decisions have an impact on the staff on the ground – without them they worry about what will happen to them. A very good boss I worked for some years ago used to say to me “Steve, it seems that many managers do not realise that not making a decision IS making a decision: they have made a decision NOT to decide.” and that of course is what everyone sees. Not taking a positive decision to communicate says “I have chosen NOT to tell you something” and people infer many things from that decision including that the decision maker believes that they are not worth communicating with.

So why is communication so hard and what can we do about it? There is an old story about an officer in World War I who sent a message from the front lines – “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”. The story had to be passed along and through the lines, by the time it got to the Commanders behind the lines it read “send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”. Mis-communication is the first problem. This happens at every stage – even the very process of transferring our own thoughts to our mouths is wildly inaccurate. I may think one thing, but what I say may be something else. What is heard (or read) is different again, so once it’s transmitted onwards, the chance of what was in my mind getting to its destination in remotely the same form is close to zero. Over 80% of what we take in is NOT verbal – so the setting, tone of voice, even the appearance of the communication we create all influence what is heard and understood. And then there’s the challenge of what to communicate: The problem is I don’t know what I know that you don’t. If I don’t know what you need to know, then how do I know to tell you? And setting and context matter – I work and live in one setting, my decisions and ideas are based partly on that context, if yours is different I may say what I mean but completely fail to get that across to you.

The list goes on: Language, timing, accent, vocabulary, acceptability of the medium, format of the message, verbal vs visual and audio clues and so on.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the biggest problem is that we simply don’t communicate enough, nor communicate early enough, nor repeat the SAME messages enough time. If we accepted the need to communicate MUCH more, to be clear about the key messages and to repeat them often, then we might start to think about using many more different medium that would allow us to repeat the important messages in the many different ways that our audience(s) want and need to hear them. Instead, we worry about saying anything until we are completely ready, by which time the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (no point me assuming you remembered that)) – will be so embedded that it’s much, much harder to get our real message across. We use our one perfect shot strategy to communicate our message – unfortunately this is too little and too late. By the time WE choose to communicate we are trying to push out other well established views of “the truth” based on conjecture, gossip and rumour.

In change projects, the need to state and re-state the main reasons is critical. e.g. “We must do this change for our company to thrive and maybe even to survive. Every week we delay will make it more likely that we will not be able to see off our new competitor. We know this will change our company. We know this may have adverse effects for some staff. But if we don’t do it, we will have a much worse problem to deal with. Please talk to your manager about your concerns and with your ideas. We will be telling them and you as much as we can. We will be listening to them to hear their and your concerns. We will provide updates each week on a Monday morning. We will be clear to managers if any of the information we give them cannot yet be shared with their teams. Please remember we need to do this change and make it succeed.” A message like this on day 1 of a planned change is very different from the deathly silence followed by repeated rumours. When the promised two-way and weekly communication happens, people will be much more likely to accept the emerging reality of exactly what will change and how. They are more likely to have influenced the outcome and more likely to believe that they have influenced it. As a result it will be more likely to succeed.

Many senior managers believe its better to wait, they think people won’t know about the nascent change. They are wrong 99.9% of the time. I remember about 15 years ago, there was an early rumour that the software company I worked for was being taken over. I first heard the rumour at about 9.30 on the Monday morning (the story was that the deal had been initiated over the weekend). By 12.30, my boss and I had contacted someone he knew who worked for the rumoured takeover candidate and we were having lunch with him to get as much of the info as we could. By mid afternoon, he and I, rather than senior management were setting the news agenda – at least to the departments we managed. Rumour fills every news gap in every situation. As a decision maker you only have two choices – let other people make up the news, or set the news agenda yourself. In the world of politics we think of this as spin – in business we call it effective management. Which would you rather, someone in your team makes up most of a story based on a snippet of misinformation or you provide a clear and (mostly) accurate – if incomplete version?

We do have a choice, leave the gaps for rumour to thrive and grow, or fill the gaps ourselves with the best and most complete information we can.