Monday, October 8, 2012

Office Politics and Rumor

The weekend got away from me.  Again.

That's the trick in life, balancing work (and work stress) with personal commitments, with... blogging.  I left work last week determined to leave it behind me and de-stress, but unfortunately, I was only partly successful.

On Friday, I read a June 29, 2009 blog post by Calvin Sun on Tech Republic entitled "10 Ways To Survive Office Politics."  I think Sun offers excellent advice. 

What I learned early in my career is, when you're at work, you're there to do a job.  If something is interfering with that, it doesn't really matter whether it's relatively harmless or totally toxic--in the end, you need to stay focused on why you're there: to do a job.

I think Sun's advice to "be a straight arrow," to find ways to "be helpful" and to "confront office politics openly" is well-taken.  You want to do everything in your power to cultivate a positive attitude or "aura" surrounding your work.

When there's a problem, try to be a problem-solver.  When there's conflict, try to be a voice of reason.

And then, get back to work.  You can't solve every problem and there's a fine line between being helpful and being a pushover.  Don't take on more than you can reasonably do and, when you do take on additional work, follow Sun's advice in point #8: "document everything." 

Nothing breeds more resentment than an employee who feels like s/he "does everything" and "pitches in constantly" only to have it go unrecorded or ultimately unacknowledged.  Supervisors can't always acknowledge every little thing, so I think you have to be savvy about the types of tasks you take on and proactive in documenting your work.

Millions of little, time-consuming tasks may not get you the recognition that will allow you to advance in your career.  A few well-placed major undertakings on behalf of the organization, followed by a series of "no, I'm sorry, I can't take on anything additional right now"'s are better in the long run for your career as a whole.

Perhaps the most important thing that I've learned is that people who constantly ask or expect you to do anything and everything don't mean you well.  They will not be strong advocates for you in the long run, and if you don't document your contributions, they will go undocumented and be "forgotten" in the end.

In cases where this kind of thing happens, I think one of two things is probably occurring: a person is infatuated with power and likes telling others what to do (under the guise of "delegating" assignments and encouraging "team players"), or a person is overwhelmed him- or herself.  And like it or not, you have somehow cultivated a reputation for being the one who will always save the day.

Let someone else save the day once in a while.

Point #4 of Sun's article--"Stay away from gossip"--is a bit trickier.  Offices are social communities and social communities function through verbal exchanges.  And often those exchanges become fixated on individual members of the community and their (alleged) actions.  Or problems.  Or hairstyles.  Or wardrobe malfunctions.  Or whatever.

Social psychologists are in relative agreement about the function and purpose of gossip and rumor.  By definition "gossip" is local, topical, and limited in significance, whereas rumors tend to be concerned with issues of greater significance to the community at large.

"I heard Bob is fooling around with Kathy."  That's gossip. 

"I heard Bob's going to fire the current office manager and promote Kathy."  That's a rumor.

I think rumors are more pernicious than gossip, ultimately, but as Sun points out--and as my examples above suggest--gossip puts people and communities on a slippery slope.  What starts as gossip can become a disruptive rumor that spreads like wildfire.

What social psychologists are less clear on is how and why certain rumors spread and gain prominence in a community.  At times, nothing will kill a rumor: not even the most clear-cut facts and openly shared information.  In a sense, rumor can function like propaganda, and a negative rumor can seriously undercut office morale and community confidence.

In "Problem Solving in Social Interactions on the Internet: Rumor as Social Cognition" [Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 1, 2004, pp. 33-49], Prashant Bordia and Nicholas Difonzo note that "Rumors arise in situations that are personally relevant but ambiguous or cognitively unclear" (33).  In such cases, "Rumors as explanations provide meaning to the uncertain situation, and offer a sense of control" (34).

Somewhat paradoxically, Bordia and Difonzo observe, "rumors that induce anxiety seem to be transmitted more frequently," "presumably because the act of transmission helps to vent the anxiety" (34).  In talking it out, however, the anxiety takes on a life of its own.

This is something that Sigmund Freud became aware of later in his career.  Whereas the "talking cure" (as psychoanalysis was initially labeled) was intended to offer an individual a chance to gain control over a repressed, traumatic event by retelling it--and thus essentially "reliving" it--in a safe, controlled, therapeutic context, Freud began to realize that something quite different could--and often did--take place.

Instead of retelling the story of the trauma in order to expel or "abreact" it, the narrator could become caught up in the "talking" itself, never moving in the direction of a "cure."  That is, the individual might derive a certain subconscious emotional satisfaction from "reliving" the trauma and repeatedly "gaining control" over it through narration. 

S/he would subconsciously opt to hang on to it instead of letting it go, and verbalization would offer a means of doing precisely that.

In the case of rumors, a similar danger presents itself.  If "the social interaction involved in rumor transmission" is a "collective sensemaking" (34) designed to ward off situational anxiety, that collective sensemaking can function effectively only if it ultimately alleviates anxiety.

But that's generally not what rumors do.  They fuel it--at least for some people.  In some cases, no measure of interpretive control is enough to cause an individual to squelch or dismiss a rumor.

Obviously, I think there's far more to be said on this issue, but one point I find particularly interesting is the potential intersections of social psychology and clinical psychology in the study of rumor.  Rumor transmission and persistence may coincide with the presence of certain individual personality types within an organization.  Although an anxious organizational situation or atmosphere may be the obvious catalyst for rumors, their continued propagation and transmission may also depend upon a perfect storm of individual personalities, in conjunction with both personally- and organizationally-compelling content.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."