Workplace Whispers

There’s an old children’s game around the world variously called “Telephone” or perhaps ironically; “Messenger”. Some places West, you may know it as “Chinese whispers” or “téléphone arabe”. In the game, the first player in the line whispers a message to the next player in line until the last player who announces the message she received and everyone compares that to the original. 

Errors in transmission often lead to amusing changes to the original intent. The more people involved, the more the message transforms in the game, whether due to anxiousness, being rushed or deliberate mistake. Since each person only hears the message from the person before them, there’s no way to fact check the accuracy to the original.

Games like this highlight the unreliability of passing on information in conversation alone and the risks of compounding errors as gossip is passed around. Even in the immediate time frame of the game, it’s apparent how our recollections can be biased, incomplete or plain wrong.

It’s no surprise then that in a work environment, tasks and messages passed on in conversation are similarly at risk. Micro-tasks that seemingly don’t deserve to be recorded as a “real” task are most likely to come to grief. Where the spoken content is passed on through intermediaries, the errors accumulate and build on themselves. Be it at home or at work, we’ve all had the experience of a word-of-mouth request being misheard or forgotten and being on the receiving end of a tongue lashing for not listening.

I’ve done it myself not so long ago. One day, under the pump at work and annoyed at being short on stock in the office, I yelled for an assistant to order more Red coded instruments. Hearing her quick reply, I gave it no more thought and ploughed on with my day. When later that week, I noticed the Reds were still out of stock; I was fired up to confront Kim the assistant for an explanation. It was fortunate for me that another colleague who’d overheard the previous exchange pull me up in my stride and pointed out the Blue ones were in fact there like I’d requested.

I was adamant I’d told Kim to order more Red ones. Kim and my colleague, however agreed they’d heard me say “Blue”. Now before you all comment about my memory and age; the point of the story is to highlight a few lessons. Firstly, never be quick to react without checking the facts. Secondly, to follow up any verbal requests with a written confirmation where possible or at least a verbal repeat of the request. Impromptu tasks done verbally are prone to miscommunication. In this example, if Kim had been too busy, she may have delegated it to another team member herself; and increasing the chances of conveying the request differently.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Gossip is another example of the dangers of message distortion and the risk of causing tension and anxiety amongst the participants through rumours and speculation. I’ve found the best way to minimise the impact of gossip is to build an expectation within the team of clear and frequent communication and be approachable to answer concerns.

Informal communications are an important part of any workplace. It contributes to team innovation through the sharing of ideas. The workplace grapevine often defines the team’s culture and fosters inclusion of new members. Being able to have an impromptu chat can discreetly defuse issues from ballooning without putting it on record or in front of others. Sharing potentially negative news informally prior to the announcement can ease the impact to the team and give everyone time to digest and ready themselves to accommodate.

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