By ALAN BRUNACINI
In a recent discussion with a group of fire service bosses, we exchanged the mutual frustrations we had all experienced in attempting to deal with how the nature of our business creates a fertile environment for the energetic exchange of informal/unofficial communication among the members. The subject of this very active ongoing communications festival relates to the people, places, and things in and around our organizations. It should be no surprise that a profession with a very selective entry system inhabited by high performance, very smart, very energetic humans with a high need for information sometimes on a slow day will invent and then circulate their own news – in fact, some of our gifted members will take that ability to an art form.
It is very predictable that this creative communications inclination will extend to the production and circulation of rumors and gossip. The bosses I was conversing with all commiserated and agreed how disruptive and sometimes damaging rumors and gossip can be and the critical need for leaders to first attempt to control and then respond when they occur. As the discussion continued, we told stories that illustrated how harmful personally damaging gossip can be to those to whom it is directed. Untrue, made-up verbal mischief can painfully and permanently affect a person’s occupation, family, and personal welfare and damage close relationships. There recently have been cases of firefighter suicides connected to vicious, untrue electronic gossip and rumors.
As the conversation continued, I related to the group that when I was a new fire chief, the members of my department went through a bizarre stage of madness where every day they energetically produced a mountain of rumors and gossip. It required a huge amount of boss time to chase down and address all the organizational junk they created. We produced an internal department current-events newsletter, had more information exchange meetings, and alerted every officer to be available and responsive to help everyone they encountered understand what was critical to them.
All our efforts were smart and necessary, but we should have done all of these things much sooner. I continued to be concerned by the effects of irresponsible verbal misbehavior. As my frustration continued, I realized that rumors and gossip are generally extended creatively with a kernel of truth often in a sarcastic and nutty way, giving that form of communication high energy that makes it “lots of fun” to engage in (listen and pass it on). It is impossible for dull, politically correct, routine, accurate organizational information to compete with inaccurate, fictional, personal, romantic, sexual, sometimes Shakespearean political tabloid stuff.
We have talked endlessly about the value of the standard operating procedure (SOP)/train/apply/critique/revise performance management model. We have applied the capability and effectiveness of the five model steps for positive improvements to sustain operational effectiveness and continually refine performance. We routinely applied the model as a standard way to solve problems; so on a very frustrated rumor day, I resorted to using it in a very quirky way: I wrote the set of SOPs that described the behaviors that created rumors and gossip. Plugging the rumor/gossip process into the regular model was nutty enough to at first cause everyone to wonder about my sanity (more than usual) and then create a realistic, robust (to say the least) departmentwide conversation for everyone on every level to really engage in on the effect of “loose lips sink ships!” (a very old axiom about how a big mouth can aid the enemy).
The impact of the sarcastic description of the procedures presented in regular official SOP form caused the department member readers to first wonder if what they were reading was actually real; then, they quickly understood that they got hooked because the behavior description is pretty accurate and realistic. If the reader had sometime engaged in the talk about another member behind his back using the behavior described in the SOP, the hook got even deeper. The rumor/gossip behavior could not stand up to the overt discussion the phony procedures created. Using the model to showcase the care and feeding of a rumor caused those behaviors not to be as much fun as they were when they were covert.
The 1983 SOP
I strongly suspect that the covert behavior the 1983 SOP describes is even more serious today because modern electronic communications make it quicker and easier to create and distribute mean-spirited, disruptive, sometimes permanent damage. I realize there is currently a bit of a risk in presenting a fairly detailed set of instructions to become a really effective organizational rumor and gossip producer and distributor in today’s highly scrutinized environment.
Although this experience happened a long time ago, I believe it is a timeless organizational/human characteristic. At the time, I (and my command colleagues) did over and over all the conventional things a boss normally does to attempt to change the rumor and gossip behaviors, but they did not work. The longer we did what didn’t work, the greater our level of frustration, which caused us to continue to do the wrong things harder. I finally figured out that writing a new rule or delivering another ho-hum lecture about the evils of rumors and gossip continually underwhelmed a group of workers who routinely (and enthusiastically) ran into burning buildings.
I respectfully ask you to resist being offended by the unusual story you have just read. The basic nature of gossip is facetious, insincere, and sarcastic, and my nutty approach was also the same; so I guess what initially got everyone’s attention was using the regular department SOP format to describe the details of something we normally would not put in writing. It was an unusual (to say the least) meeting where the fire chief overtly and openly reviewed a set of organizationally covert behaviors. Sometimes a conventional approach may not be very effective in solving an unconventional problem.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.
Your Fire Department Standard Operating Procedures
Subject: Gossip and Rumors
Purpose: The basic purpose of this procedure is to create the maximum amount of disorder and damage to the members of the River City Fire Department through the development, expansion, and extension of negative information.
The Basic Principle: Always be alert for any unsubstantiated information. When you hear something negative, don’t ever keep it to yourself. Develop some negative additions (the more absurd the better), and pass it along. The key to effective rumor power is driven by open mouths and closed minds. Take advantage of how much more interesting it is to pass along negative and damaging news than it is to send out anything really dull that involves positive, helpful, or constructive. It is a bonus if the negative news can injure the reputation or status of the persons who are helpless to defend themselves against the advantage you have of gossiping about them behind their back.
Never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about anything or anybody. It is absolutely unacceptable to say anything favorable about the City, our Department, minorities, majorities, the other shift, female firefighters, male firefighters, the Union, Command/Company Officers, or the customers we protect. If you hear any misfits passing along positive stuff (probably recruits who haven’t “learned the ropes”), slip them a fast “huganut” or “sucko” comment within the peer process. They will quickly shut up, and stereotypes* will go on forever. Remember, if you can’t say something negative, for heaven’s sake don’t say anything at all.
*Whenever possible, engage in stereotypes. They offer the quickest and most convenient negative package to put someone in. Also, notice how the central negatives will use stereotypes in a way that divides people into good (us) and bad (them). This provides the most efficient system to split up the members of an organization.
Never let positive experiences with an individual distract you from believing (and passing along) the very worst possible rumor about that individual.
When you hear something bad about someone, don’t ever hesitate to develop a negative opinion about that person, particularly if you have never met, seen, known, or actually had anything directly to do with that individual. It is your responsibility to share in the rumor absorption and distribution process.
Never display courage, independence, or leadership with your group. If you are a member of a character assassination mob, never disagree with the group or attempt to defend the victim. Remember, the crew that gossips together is always looking for fresh meat, and you can make yourself very unpopular if you disagree with the undercover anonymous lynch mob.
Avoid helping any other member who appears to be having a problem. Always expand and pass along every negative aspect of the other person’s problem. Also, when another member makes a mistake, don’t ever let him (or anyone else) forget it. The basic approach is, when you get him in a box, do everything you can to keep him there. The trick is to continually bring up every negative aspect of whatever has happened in the past. If we never forget anything negative, we will always have an abundance of destructive stuff floating around that will absolutely prevent us from recovering from the setbacks that inevitably occur in any organization staffed by human beings.
When you are moving information within the system, do everything possible to avoid the real facts. Don’t ever research, ask, call, or otherwise find out what is actually going on. Be prepared to confirm any juicy gossip. The actual facts may turn out to be positive and are usually disappointing when compared with the twilight zone of gossip, rumors, and innuendo.
Whenever creating or embellishing a rumor or gossip, always refer to some uncheckable source or invent a nonexistent agency or some completely unverifiable statistic to embellish and improve the rumor’s creditability.
When spreading something especially cruel, be sure to absolve yourself as the author of the rumor. Be sure to preface your comments with “now, I wouldn’t believe this, but everyone is saying ….” or “have you heard the news about …?” Never allow yourself to be identified as the source.
Avoid approaching the problems we face as a Department in an open, constructive way. It is far more exciting to turn the organization over to the world-class snivelers and let them speak for us with a fragmented, negative, destructive voice. They always have the “real story,” and 10 minutes of their complaining, gossiping, and back-biting can overshadow any amount of excellent work on the part of our members. Remember, always hide out whenever you have a positive contribution to make; keep the favorable stuff to yourself, and don’t take a chance. Let the rumors roll on!
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