Ever play “telephone” when you were young? The game where one kid whispers something into her friend’s ear and he whispers it to the next kid and then on down the line until the last kid says what they heard out loud.
We all know the outcome: most of what is said by the last person sounds nothing like what was said by the first person.
Usually, what ends up being said by the last person is funny. But today, in business, we call it the rumor mill. And funny is the last word you’d use to describe it.
In fact, it’s one of the biggest competitors an entrepreneur will ever face. Often, they ignore it but at their own expense or peril.
Don’t believe you have a rumor mill to contend with?
Then why were you surprised to learn that many of your employees think you’re going out of business — only to find out it was because one person told another that you’d lost money over the last two months due to COVID-19 when in fact you didn’t?
Or that you were thinking of closing down a branch office when the thought never even occurred to you?
Or when that key deliverable date wasn’t met because, rumor has it, you weren’t willing to spend the money to get training on an important software component when, in fact, you were never even asked about it?
You just met your biggest competitor. The rumor mill.
Examples like these are the exact experiences that make an entrepreneur feel like they are completely alone and surrounded by people who are no better than average.
It makes you begin to wonder who’s being honest with you — if anyone.
So why is it that one of the biggest competitors an entrepreneur will ever face, a competitor that’s right in front of you every day, is so ignored and totally underestimated?
Because the rumor mill, by design, is quiet and harmful. It’s a cancer on the business if you fail to tame it.
Most entrepreneurs and business owners don’t want to believe there even is a rumor mill within their business.
But I guarantee you it’s there — and doing serious damage.
The rumor mill kills morale, lowers engagement, reduces productivity, creates a totally untrue story about you, and prevents really good people from even applying to work at your company.
If you doubt there’s a rumor mill in your business spend an afternoon looking at the websites Glassdoor or Indeed. Or simply start regularly Googling the name of your business.
You might want to have a cocktail nearby.
However, try not to take it personally because the basis for the rumor mill is not really you or your business. Its origin is fear of change.
Whenever you want to make a change, or even think about making a change, there will be employees who are for it and employees who are against it. Where each employee lands depends on how the change will affect them.
Those who are against the change will voice their opinions and biases through the rumor mill, and you can’t control it.
Those who are for the change, usually remain quiet.
The sad fact is that some people will believe the rumors, and their beliefs will trigger their emotions and, at that point, good luck with the outcome.
You just witnessed how politics begins in any business.
The rumor mill is also the favorite weapon of the hierarchy model of business — the business model used by most early-stage entrepreneurs — which is all about command and control over individuals.
Within a hierarchy, you, the entrepreneur, will always be the last to know what’s going on in your business.
Your direct reports, and all the key people in your business, can easily withhold information from you.
Think about it.
You own the business, but you are the person who knows the least about it. And simply because you can only know what others want you to know.
The hierarchy is a breeding ground for secrecy and the result is you and your company being held hostage by rumors. Yet day after day you make important decisions about your business — not realizing that you’re making them blind.
It’s a natural by-product of the hierarchy model.
Your direct reports know that you can fire them and inflict a terrible price on them if something goes wrong. Which means their main job becomes, well, keeping their job.
That fear makes rumors take hold and then get further fueled by other employees who are protecting their jobs.
What might be a surprise you is that there are always internal battles raging within your company between those who want change and those who don’t. Battles that you will never know about.
But here’s the most important thing for you to understand: You CAN take charge of the rumor mill.
I learned three rules that helped me understand and control the narrative of the rumor mill and tame the hierarchy of self-interest at one of my first companies:
1) Be honest at all costs.
2) Treat everyone with the utmost respect and care.
3) Institute this one report …
The 5-15 Report
By employing this one simple report I learned the impact I had on my organization and created an open dialogue with all employees so they would tell me the truth related to their job.
This one report – called the 5-15 — forced everyone to be more honest.
I started using it because I no longer wanted to be the last to know what was happening within my own business. Instead, I wanted to influence what was discussed in the rumor mill.
Most importantly, though, I wanted to make sure all my employees knew I cared about them.
Here’s how the 5-15 Report works:
Each employee is asked to answer four questions after work on Friday every week.
They are instructed to send me their responses to those four questions every Sunday by 5:00pm.
It’s called the 5-15 because answering the questions takes employees no more than 15, and digesting their answers takes the business owner no more than 5 minutes.
I’d separate the reports into two piles:
Pile #1: 5-15s that I wanted to follow-up on
Pile #2: 5-15s that needed no follow up; where everything was okay
When following up, I would explore with the employee and learn more about them, promising to keep confidentiality — which I did and which is imperative.
The result of implementing the 5-15 Report?
It broke down barriers between individual employees and myself. I learned about families. I learned where I and/or other members of my team could personally help an employee outside of work. And, to my total surprise, I learned that up until I started using the 5-15 Report I hadn’t been seeing my employees as people. I had been viewing them as numbers, a means of production without a face.
So, through this process, my employees became human beings to me for the first time.
This meant whenever I made decisions from that point forward, I thought about each of these people and how I could make the best outcomes for all concerned.
Honesty between employees and their managers improved. And honesty between managers and myself improved.
Most of all, I was no longer the last person in the organization to know what was going on.
It had the effect of making my employees and me more relaxed every day, ready to achieve even bigger goals.
I became a legitimate leader in my business.
Download the 5-15 Report for free. Then let me know how I can help you put it into action in your business.