Did you know that a penny placed on the railroad track will derail the entire train?
I have heard this nugget of information (and believed it) for most of my youth. After all, if so many people were saying it, it had to be true… right? A very dangerous experiment, Yet kids and even adults have placed coins in the paths of oncoming trains for generations, hoping for a flattened penny as a good luck piece. I wonder how many lives have been lost when all those trains derailed?
There is no recorded incident of a penny derailing a train. Ever. However, there are multiple accounts of people being killed in the attempt of the stunt. Some have gotten too close to the train and were struck by the massive engine. Others were struck by their own penny that shot out from under the train like a bullet. But the train roared on, unaware of the ricochet.
Some helping agencies are like those locomotives. Arriving at the scheduled designation is the ultimate goal and beware the one trying to slow it down or stop it. Enter office politics. Every agency has them. Those are the rules, thoughts, beliefs and procedures that might not make sense to line staff or even the middle management, but they exist and can change at a moment’s notice due to outside circumstances. Office politics can be baffling to some and produce resentment in others. It’s easy to blame the leadership for rules or decisions that are not understood. Often, even the leaders are not the ones driving that particular train. As administration, a CEO, at times, receives pressure from the governing board, local government, pending litigation, confidential reports or even state and federal pressure. There is often a reason for the new rule, procedure or personnel action. But it doesn’t trickle down to the boots on the ground. Consequently, when information is witheld from the ones working to keep the train on course, they begin to develop their own narratives about what is going on. Faced with these issues, the engine can lose power and begin to slow.
Then comes the rumor. That’s the penny. In my career, I cannot count the number of times disgruntled or unhappy employees, with no knowledge of the details of a situation, begin to share their own “Narrative”. Given breath, the narrative becomes a rumor. When “the whisper game begins,” it can spread like dandelion seeds on a breezy day.
Unfounded rumors can contribute to worker anxiety, low productivity, decreased satisfaction and worker turnover. The most damaging rumors tend to circulate about the reason behind another employee’s departure. Usually the line begins, “Did you hear about how so and so was railroaded out of her job just for x. (You fill in the blank): coming in late one time, wearing inappropriate shoes, taking sick leave when her baby was sick. My favorite is “he was fired because the supervisor didn’t like him.” When you read these, they may sound implausible, but I have heard them all.
By spreading rumors like this, the disgruntled staff member is putting a penny on the rail, hoping for a derailment. But, like a real train, the program may slow down a little and tensions will increase. But it will not derail. What happens most often is that employees who focus on that penny instead of their mission, get hit by the ricochet.
The staff that believe and take to heart the rumors floating in the air, begin to feel devalued and anxious for their own jobs. If they are not grounded in their vision, they will resign. And, when they leave, others have to carry the burden of the extra work until new staff can be hired and trained. But that disgruntled staff who began the rumor? Interestingly enough, they tend to remain and continue to spread their maladaptive narratives.
So how does an agency combat the rumors and maladaptive beliefs that can cause such tension? As always, both line staff and leadership have to share the responsibility to keep the train running smoothly and harmoniously.
Leaders, you have to take the time, when new duties are added or taken away, procedures have changed or expectations have increased, to sit down with your staff and give them the “why.” The why (the real why) can deflate speculation and rumors more efficiently than anything. Of course there are some things you cannot share such as the reasons behind the departure of another staff. But for most other things, you can help the staff to understand the reasoning behind some changes rather than expecting blind obedience without engaging them with knowledge. Knowledge is a great equalizer and staff development tool. Also, arming them with the truth allows them to ignore the rumors floating around their heads.
If you are a line staff member or supervisor, you can control this as well. Focusing on why you chose this profession and your personal mission will make it more difficult to be pulled into the wake of a thundering train. Set some established goals for yourself and keep your eyes on those goals. They could be developmental, career path goals or something much more personal. But they are yours. You know what has to occur to reach them. Most importantly, you know not to engage with speculation and rumor that will take your eyes off your prize. When you hear one of these rumors, you are tempted to join in. The more salacious the rumor, the more you can be drawn in. But I challenge you to ask yourself the following questions. “What has this got to do with me?” “How would the person spreading this even know these things? “Even if it is true, will it affect my mission?”. If the answer to the last one is yes, go to your supervisor and ask for clarification. Don’t put your own penny on the track.
In your desire to be the change you wish to see in the world, you chose a high stress profession, with few external rewards. You know that. Your rewards are much more intrinsic. You are touching lives and making a difference in the lives of others. Don’t be derailed by rumors, gossip and innuendo that comes with office politics. Keep your eyes on your goals, not on the shiny penny someone else laid on the track.