Subtitle: When to trust an informed source or a corporate gossip
An Informed Source
I remember sitting on a hard school bench when a little voice would whisper something and the teacher would growl, “Who said that?” For 12 long years I waited for some kid to say, “An informed source, Sir.” But it never happened.
Today I often read about what “informed sources” have to say because now that I’m an adult I am expected to believe in their existence. Back then kids had more sense.
Not anymore. Social media savvy youngsters learn early that it is acceptable to hide their identity when prancing around the Internet. In fact, hiding is desirable. It allows you to attack without the need to defend. You can twitter away ‘facelessly.’ And if you have a website, a blog or a podcast aimed at destroying someone’s reputation, you might even be quoted as being an informed source.
But I, for one, won’t believe you. Even though sometimes I might feel compelled to take what you say seriously.
An “Informed” Gossip
If your workplace is gossip free, assume you work at home, alone. Gossip, after all, is human nature. It has been part of us ever since the third human arrived on earth.
How should you deal with gossip? If you are a boss, use it. Let me explain. Once upon a time Japanese executives encouraged strategy ideas to trickle down the hierarchy. They refined their strategy based on how those tasked with execution reacted to the trickled down ideas.
You too could seed a bite of gossip to test a new idea or policy. But for this to work, you must be tapped into the gossip network.
What if you are an employee and not the boss? Use the gossip. Listen to as much gossip as you can stomach. There is no better source of career making information.
However, whether boss or employee, try not to be labeled a gossip. The trick is to have access to gossip without passing it on. (If you figure out how, please let me know.)
Private Source vs Public Gossip
An informed source is likely reliable but wants to remain private. We assume that gossips are unreliable, yet they often share reliable, but private, information in public. What drives them to speak? We assume that truth and justice motivates informed sources while we accuse gossips of seeking attention and social power.
How does this play out at work? At work we get a flow of information and feedback from bosses and subordinates, from peers and colleagues, and, depending on our status, from informed sources and gossips. Some information appears factual while other bits sound suspect. Some sources are easy to ignore and some information is easy to forget.
But what if your job requires you to be in-the-know and on-top-of-things? In this position, how should you handle information, irrespective of the source and the quality? The answer is obvious but not simple. If you must act on the information, then trust, but verify.
Trust, but verify
Trust, but verify is a Russian proverb. It is also a lesson I learned the hard way as an inexperienced management consultant. Ever since then, trust, but verify has kept me out of trouble as an employee, sane as a coach and balanced as a CEO. At least, I like to think so.
Normally, trust, but verify should be straightforward. But not with information from informed sources and office gossips. When you use information from your informed source, you risk losing trust if you cannot protect your source’s identity. If you use information from the public gossip, even if reliable, you risk losing the respect of your superiors and colleagues.
What should you do with information so gathered?
Don’t let the information seduce you
Here’s what you must not do—allow the information to seduce you. Instead, consider the risk in only having one source, be it informed or gossipy. When I understood this risk for the first time, I realized how I could trust, but verify with confidence.
Early in an assignment, often before the paid-for work begins, consultants and coaches gather information to identify the problem correctly. During this information-gathering phase informed sources and corporate gossips provide insights which could be useful and risky. The risk lies in how easily consultants are influenced by informed sources; as easily as gossips influence the rest of us. Clients have a right to expect that consultants will not be summarily seduced by enticing information.
Impossible to un-hear once heard
We all play at consulting and coaching every day. Colleagues, friends and family come to us with incomplete information and ask for advice. Sometimes they expect us to listen; other times they expect us to do something with what they told us. Whatever they expect from us, we now have a problem. We can never un-hear what we’ve heard. And being unable to un-hear, we might feel compelled to act even though we were asked to only listen.
Is it wise to act based on one-source information? Is it fair to risk jeopardizing your source, who wishes to remain hidden, by using the information given to you in confidence? Is it clever to let on that you think gossip is credible information? The easy answer to all three questions is “no.” However, at work you don’t have the luxury of easy, not if your job is to know what’s happening at work so that you can act judiciously.
At work all information matters, but not equally. This means that all sources of information matter as well, but not equally. Your problem is thus one of knowing that all your sources matter while not knowing how reliable their current information is. Hence the need to verify its accuracy. The risk lies in trying to verify without revealing your source.
My Rule of Two
This is how I trust, but verify without revealing my source. If I hear the same story, or something similar, from two or more people, independently, I am free to act on the information. I reason that if more than one person is troubled about the same issue, troubled enough to come to me, then the issue needs my attention.
Two people can look at the same situation and interpret it differently. This is simply the nature of perceptions. It explains why at work I cannot rely on only one person’s interpretation of reality. However, when two or more people verbalize the same reality, I am inclined to accept their concerns as valid even though their interpretation might be inaccurate.
(I am inclined to act even if their interpretation is incorrect because as long as they believe their reality, it will handicap their contribution. How I will act is a different matter.)
Oh no, sensible them is now gullible us
Let me end where I began, in the classroom. Years ago a teacher could get away with stating a proof as “because I say so.” Thanks to the Internet and other on-line media magic, we have ways and means of debunking say-so proofs and suspect informed sources. And yet, we don’t bother.
I like to think back when I sat on that hard school bench, kids had more sense—if only because kids back then would never dare to hide behind an informed source. We forget that them is now us. Today we, those kids all grown up, use informed sources with impunity.
To regain our lost (common) sense, we should trust but verify with the Rule of Two.