Gossip as a Corporate Strategy

While the management gurus pound you with advice on great strategies, propagated all the way down from Peter Drucker, simple day-to-day tools are often seriously overlooked. Gossip, in the hands of the shrewd executive at the right level, beats any of the management theories taught, after paying thousands of dollars, at management schools. In many cases, it takes small talk to an entirely different level with richer rewards.

First, all gossip is not the same. Second, for the best effect, all gossip must be released to the right person at the right time. Two low level executives may have a casual conversation in the parking lot wherein they may exchange gossip about the habits of a new Director who has recently joined the organization; or exchange rumors regarding an upcoming promotion and who the favorites are; or even the affair between the CEO’s secretary and the VP of HR. But such exchanges of mundane gossip do nothing more than help foster a feeling of comradery between the executives.

To become a strategic tool, the art of gossip must be refined and used with a touch of finesse – and this comes from experience and constant practice. Let us say it is the budgeting season where favors, I mean budgets, are being doled out to various departments. The CFO is struggling with cutting costs by chopping off funds approved earlier. To ‘help her along’, you, the Head of IT, whisper into the ears of the CFO, “Hi, I hear that our CEO is rather upset with the lack of returns from the liberal serving of dessert during our quarterly sales review meetings –  and maybe….. the funds are better used for buying more laptops for our IT department…”. Later on, you feign surprise when you are told that your IT budgets have been approved without any cuts.

At the highest levels, judicious injection of gossip into conversations helps keep your subordinates on edge and plunge them into (un)healthy fights over non-existent issues. Let us look at a scenario where the COO is having a ‘casual’ conversation with the VP of Administration.

COO: Hi Jason, how is it going….

VP, Admin: Very well, thank you. Just struggling with controlling increasing travel costs in the company. I …….

COO (“here is an opportunity”): I have been noticing that too. I hear that the sales people are having fun parties while on visits to unqualified prospects.

VP, Admin: Thanks for that tip (I don’t care if this is true or not). I will tighten the belt.

Soon, there begins a cold war between the VP, Admin and VP, Sales on a non-existent problem. Travel expenses are brutally cut down leading to disinterested sales people refusing to travel. In the meanwhile, the originator of the gossip, the COO, with one less thing to monitor, moves on to ‘tackling’ other ‘C’ level executives in the company.

The World of Small Talk

Let us get one thing straight at the beginning – there is nothing ‘small’ about small talk. More often than not, it occupies center stage and is accorded much more importance than the main topic or issue on hand – which it is intended to lead you gently into.

‘How are you?’, ‘How is it going?’ or a more trendy ‘Howdy?’ may not always attract what you are expecting by way of response – a mono-syllable ‘Good’, ‘Fantastic’ or, if you are really lucky, a mere grunt. Your feeble attempt at interacting with an office colleague, with the ill-founded intention of acting sociable, might be the trigger to an extraordinarily elaborate and vivid description, in excruciating detail, of the happenings in the addressee’s life over the past day/week/month/year – as an added bonus, you might also get to know similar details of others who may have had the misfortune to ask the same question ahead of you.

It is agreed that small talk is not everyone’s forte – I have my full sympathy for the hapless souls who struggle to break the ice while interacting with strangers and friends alike, whether at a party or in an office setting. But, on the flip side, those to whom small talk is nothing but second nature have the power, singly and severally, to borrow a legal term, to reduce productivity in the office to statistically insignificant numbers!

Unlike most other activities that have the proverbial time and place to be practiced, small talk is omnipresent and, to the seasoned practitioner, requires no tools of the trade and no preparation time. It is unleashed without notice and hits its mark instantaneously. You could be helping yourself to a cup of water or coffee (while wishing for something stronger) in the break room, when you inadvertently become witness to or get entangled in the intricate details of someone’s child’s birthday party over the weekend or the dinner menu in a restaurant that will be part of a colleague’s vacation festivities next summer.

Extricating (as opposed to the more polite behavior of ‘excusing’) yourself from small talk is a skill that is learnt the hard way and usually after having endured the consequences of not doing so multiple times. Some commonly practiced techniques, with varying degrees of success depending on the practitioner and situation, include responding to nature’s call (assuming that the conversation is not currently taking place in the facility), feigning the onset of an unknown illness, mailing a letter (assuming the current time is close enough to the last mail clearance event for the day) and several variations of these themes. Of course, the universally accepted path to salvation in the corporate world would be the need to go to your next meeting – this is where it really pays to fill your calendar with (real and imaginary) meetings! The last resort to escape from the onslaught of small talk is to rudely walk away – clearly a trade-off between maintaining your {sanity, composure and even health} and being ostracized.

While general small talk around the office can usually be tackled with some personal inconvenience and longer work hours to make up for lost time, the real impact to business occurs at the highest levels in the organization. Here is a snippet of a conversation between the CEO of the company and VP, Procurement of a prospective customer:

CEO: Good Morning! How are you today?

VP: Hi, hanging in there (cough), we have this deadly flu going around town!

CEO: Oh dear, what a shame! My uncle, who lives in your area had the same …….

VP: Yeah, it is strange that even people who have lived here for 20 years are still affected by ……..

(15 minutes later)

CEO: How long have you been there? Where did you live earlier… which college did you go to……

VP: I was at …….

CEO: ……that is really interesting ….. my nephew is also applying to the same School….wonder if you know……

VP: Yes, of course… let me look up my contacts list …….abigail, arnold, arthur… here he is asante…..

(30 minutes later)

CEO: And, by the way, I believe you are asking for a 30% discount on our products. That could be a problem…..

VP: Hi, I really don’t have the time to go into all the numbers now…..why don’t I ask my Manager, Technology Purchases to call someone at your place ……maybe next month, after he is back from vacation. I am sure we can work out something.

CEO: ….I was really hoping to get this order in this quarter……well….. hello … OK…. if you have to go you have to …..catch up later.

So, that is the world we live in – keep it going, but do keep the focus!