Organizational Communications – Decoding Hearsay

Organizational Communications – Decoding Hearsay


Organizational communications are often fraught with broken communication lines and assumed behaviours. Managers can make poor decisions, by acting on assumptions or what they’ve been told, without doing some basic investigation.

Within any organization, communications are assumed everyday. We make workplace assumptions all the time. We see yellow lines painted across the factory floor — we assume that it is safe to walk there. A colleague assures you that the report will be on your desk by close of business — you assume the report will be there. We talk and think that the other person is listening — we assume that the idea we presented when we spoke is the same idea the listener received.

We do need to make assumptions at the workplace — we do not have the time to check, verify, monitor every decision we make or every action we take. Life is too complex to take nothing for granted.

Organizational Communications – Problematic Situations

However, within any organizational communication process there are some occasions when acting on assumptions — or false beliefs — leads us to making a poor decision.

The occasions are:

  • We are expected to act on hearsay — where someone complains to you about the performance or the behaviour of another person.
  • We feel strongly about an event, an issue or a person.
  • Things are not working as well as we want them to — an initiative is not getting the required result.

In each one of these situations, we may find it easy to make a poor or unhelpful decision by acting — or, rather, reacting — quickly, based on poor or inaccurate information. Let’s face it, no individual has perfect vision, complete understanding or infallible memory.

To help us make better decisions in these kinds of situations, it is helpful to ask some questions first in order to improve the organizational communications process. Some of the questions should be asked of ourselves and other questions we need to ask of others.

In this article, we take a look at the first of these situations — we are expected to act on hearsay — and suggest some questions to ask. The remaining two situations will be considered in future articles.

The point of the exercise is to find out any critical information to get an accurate picture of the issue. We are interested in testing our perception of what may be happening — we are interested in how we see things.

‘We are expected to act on hearsay’

Alex comes to you to complain about Ralph who is responsible for logging, reviewing and actioning feedback from the aged-care facility patients. Alex’s complaint is that patients provide feedback but that they are not made aware of any follow-up — it all seems to go into a black box, and nothing comes out.

What do you say to Alex?

When someone complains about the behaviour of a third person, managers commonly respond by taking over the problem. Or by saying something trite like ‘Leave it with me — I’ll look into it’. (We have all worked with the supervisor we called ‘mirror’.)

The difficulty is that you did not witness or experience anything directly. Your primary strategy is to work with Alex who did witness the situation so that she can deal with the situation helpfully.

Ask yourself:

  • Did I witness the behaviour?
  • Am I being requested to take responsibility away from Alex here?

Ask Alex:

  • What behaviour annoys or irritates you?
  • What are the effects of those behaviours?
  • What would you want Ralph to do differently?
  • Have you done anything that you think might escalate the situation?
  • How important is this incident to you?
  • Should you let it go?
  • Have you tried talking to Ralph about this incident?
  • How could I help you talk directly to Ralph?

What the conversation achieves:

By asking these questions, you are helping Alex to take responsibility for the way she feels, ensuring her assumptions are reasonable, helping her decide how to proceed and improve the organizational communication process. Plus, you are saved from having to act on hearsay — a recipe for making a poor decision — and from being seen to take sides. By focusing on improving organizational communications through asking these questions also allows you to avoid reacting inappropriately to hearsay and helps empower Alex to deal with the situation professionally. Most importantly, when the governing priority is getting the full scope of a situation before reacting, the health and well being of staff and clients improves.

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