There are times when it's clear that a situation is going in the wrong direction:

  • a manager trying to undermine another
  • an employee being indirectly demoted
  • budgets being cut for profitable projects
  • a successful manager is fired or "layered" for some unconvincing reason
  • politics of all kinds

Especially if you have been in a company for a while, it's easier to see the personal agendas and rivalries. I want to help some of my newer colleagues prepare themselves for some changes that are being concocted behind the scenes. It is difficult to explain the situation without sounding like I am spreading gossip, and I might be perceived as paranoid because they don't have any idea of what has been going on for years. The question is: how can I prepare my colleagues for a situation burning in the background, without sounding paranoid? Or, should I say nothing, let them find out for themselves, even if it's against their best interest?

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    Just to confirm; are you in a position of superiority to those whom you are trying to prepare? Depending on your role, it might lend more credibility to what you're saying and therefore sound less like speculation or worrying too much. – Kozaky Dec 6 at 11:19
  • I might argue that the title should read "as cynical" rather than "as paranoid". Each scenario listed describes a glass is half empty type of outlook on the company. – DanK Dec 6 at 17:31
  • What is supposed to be unusual about your list of bullet points? They all happen all the time, in any company with more than a handful of employees. – alephzero Dec 6 at 22:57
  • Nowhere near a duplicate, but perhaps relevant: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/120700/… – Tas Dec 7 at 1:50
up vote 20 down vote accepted

First off, you present these items as known facts. It's impossible for anyone here to know if you are correct in your knowledge or are in fact paranoid, imagining things, and/or misinformed. For the purposes of this answer, I assume that these are in fact true. However, my experience is that things are never quite as simple as they seem and there are surely aspects of these kinds of things that you are not aware of.

Secondly, it sounds like you are working in a company with a toxic culture. You should consider moving on for your own good unless you think things are changing for the better.

There are two competing forces here: your personal self-preservation and your desire to help others. It's really crucial that you can trust the people you are discussing this with. The kinds of activities you describe require subterfuge. Exposing these activities can be a threat to those engaged in them. You also take on the risk of being considered a gossip. I worked with someone who would often tell me a lot of these kinds of things and much of it turned out to be true but at a certain point, I became concerned about discussing anything with him even if it seems innocuous to me.

On the other hand, not understanding these kinds of things can be really detrimental. One of my most unpleasant work experiences revolved around being assigned work that a manager above me did not want to succeed because it would help a rival out of a jam; something I didn't learn until I was thrown under the proverbial bus. Being informed about that would have helped me navigate that situation a great deal.

You definitely should not be taking a new person aside and giving them an overview of the politics of the organization. They don't have enough context to make sense of it and won't know if you are trustworthy. It will likely just make them worried and unsure about their new job. Ideally, you wait for an invitation such as "Why would funding be cut for the Foobar project? It doesn't make sense." And you don't need to be super specific. You can hypothesize: "Yeah it's weird. Maybe someone doesn't want it to succeed" and let them figure it out. The reality is that all organizations are political and you too are part of the politics where you work.

Or, should I say nothing, let them find out for themselves, even if it's against their best interest?

This.

It's not clear how you discovered all this behind the scenes intrigue when nobody else did, but you'll be better off letting others discover it in the same way.

Keep the gossip to yourself.

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    "When nobody else did"? I don't think Monoandale claimed to be the only person on the payroll who has ever noticed all this "behind the scenes intrigue." Monoandale merely suggested that newcomers to the company will not yet have the necessary background knowledge, understanding of key personalities in the hierarchy, etc., to let them recognize certain unhealthy trends in the behavior of senior figures in the company. – Lorendiac Dec 6 at 14:29
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    @Lorendiac until its official, its gossip – SaggingRufus Dec 6 at 15:23
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    Not only this, but it may not be against their best interest after all. Each person sees only a narrow part of the puzzle, and it's often biased in their direction. The best interest is often to let fellow smart people observe and draw their own conclusions. – corsiKa Dec 6 at 15:42
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    Right, it's totally ethical to let people walk into a buzzsaw. – JimmyJames Dec 6 at 15:57
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    Another heavily-upvoted answer that is essentially "Keep your head down, meekly doff your cap to authority saying 'Great! Super!' even if they're driving the company off a cliff, don't help colleagues of your own level, never build trust or alliances with people who are on the way up and don't have power now but may do in a few years". Is this really what US workplaces are like? Sounds awful. – user568458 Dec 7 at 6:57

Focus on the "what" instead of the "why", and present it in a neutral way and let them determine whether it is good or bad. In other words, avoid ascribing motives, anything that can be considered opinion or gossip, and avoid identifying individuals. Using your third bullet as an example;

budgets being cut for profitable projects

Don't say "Upper management is trying to outsource development of Project X".

Say instead something like "The last time the budget was cut for a project like Project X, the company underwent some restructuring. I do not know if it will happen this time, but be prepared to be moved around.

If your colleagues aren't directly affected by whatever intrigues you claim to know about, you shouldn't tell them. At best they won't care or understand what you mean, at worst you'll be branded as gossiping traitor.

You can assume that even new colleagues get a feeling for the overall company climate rather quickly and notice that either "all is well" or "something (bad) is in the air". In the second case it doesn't even matter what that something is.

If you know about some changes that have not been officially announced yet and that directly and negatively affect colleagues, you can think about talking to them in private. One such example would be the possibility of them loosing their jobs due to a lack of orders or the company being taken over.

If the "situation burning in the background" is more like a change of management personnel or company politics, you shouldn't spread rumors before any facts are announced.

In any case, proceed with caution and if in doubt, keep quiet.

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    On a personal level, I think this is really good advice. But it's worth OP remembering that if they do find out about redundancy/etc. before it's happened - sharing that can really throw spanners in the work and cause issues (specific things can/cannot be said) - so they really need to exercise caution about how/when they say anything. – Bilkokuya Dec 6 at 13:23

The question is: how can I prepare my colleagues for a situation burning in the background, without sounding paranoid?

What do you hope to achieve by informing new colleagues of these situations? Unless these situations causes some sort of problem for you and your colleagues, I see no reason to bring it up. If for example, you're worried a new employee will quit after being tossed around because it is common, then it is okay to mention it minor like, "Yes, we are shifted around every so often but do not worry your job is good to go." Otherwise if fo no reason than office gossip, I'd keep quiet.

The question comes down to "founders". Historically, people who were part of an organization's founding or substantial growth will tend to listen better; people who came in later with no founder experience will tend to mislabel many concerns as "paranoid".

You might not be able to.

Research:

  • Google Manifesto
  • GM Executives: Sloan vs Smith
  • UK Prime Ministers: Chamberlain vs Churchill
  • Star Wars' controversial directors
  • John Sculley
  • Marie Antoinette

Elaboration

I wrote a book about this called Monkeys in the Jungle which includes the "Steele Theorem of Decline".

A comfortable world with high quality of living is built by people who tear up and knock down big things. Roads are first laid out by trailblazers who don't travel on roads. Founders build a building they see in their minds only, but work outdoors when that building doesn't even exist.

A manager, "great successor" (as I often call it), heir, peace-and-prosperity-time executive, and any other kind of non-founding steward genuinely does not believe that the problems founders face are real because the founder made sure to deal with all those problems in advance.

If you are raising concerns about stability for the future of the company, you are doing so with people who did not found the company. So, the very reason they are making decisions that you express concern over is the very reason that they put you on the psychoanalysis "couch" and mislabel you as "paranoid"—because they cannot see the problem that you do. They genuinely believe that you are hallucinating or something of the sort. Moreover, they will believe that any problems that follow were a self-fulfilling prophecy caused by YOU.

This is not mere opinion, but my consistent experience and also the experience of history.

Marie Antoinette was collecting fake flowers among fake shepherds in her "Garden of Eden", paid for with debt, while the French Revolution was at her doorstep. She really didn't know what was happening because she didn't build the luxury she enjoyed. She was only there because she married Louis XVI, who borrowed money to prop up the country he didn't understand, build by his wise and shrewd grandfather, Louis XIV.

John Sculley genuinely believed that Steve Job's abrasive (propelling) leadership style was what was wrong with Apple, not even considering that it was the driving force that pushed everything forward. The stock market figured out before Sculley did that good computers aren't made of "getting along", but of technology so perfect that no one knows one is using it. In literary terms, Apple's "Here's to the rebels" ad was a nose-thumb at Sculley and a historical vindication of Job's himself, which came shortly after Job's return.

I'll let the Star Wars fan videos speak for themselves; you can start with Alex Becker. The last two directors followed their own ideas, not the ideas of Lucas, the original cast who helped shape Star Wars from their understanding of Lucas, nor the fans who understood Lucas and his original cast. They thought they could go their own way on top of a foundation built by others, but without feeling indebted to that foundation.

Chamberlain got Hitler to write a promise not to attack any more countries; the newspapers read "Peace in Our Time", then Hitler broke that promise, WWII started, and the king asked that Winston Churchill be made prime minister because Churchill saw the looming war that Chamberlain did not. Churchill saw that violating the demilitarized zone was a rehearsal for war; building tanks was preparation for it. Chamberlain could not see those things for what they were because he did not have real life experience enough to understand that tanks are not made for parades and armies do not march with them as a show of weakness.

Alfred Sloan was an EE major from MIT, had a background as president of a roller bearing company, which eventually got merged into GM. He led GM through decades of growth in the mid 1900s because he knew the "mojo" that "drove" the car company. Roger Smith was an MBA who started at GM as an accountant during Sloan's leadership, then led the company in the '80s. His decisions led GM in the direction that eventually earned it's nickname "Government Motors" after the bailouts. As one GM employee told me (I'm from Michigan), "They can count [beans], but they can't do math. They don't recognize who buys their cars and they can't figure out what will happen when they downsize 1/3 of their customers."

With all that in mind, I'll let the Google Manifesto speak for itself. Suffice it to say, the Google Manifesto seems like it could have been written by someone who shares many of the affections as expressed in the Question here.

Can the problem be stopped? Historically, no; only cycled through all phases of my Steele Theorem of Decline and allowed to run its course like a common cold or whatever virus it is that invades too many companies.

My advice is that you journal these times; your memoirs might have the greatest financial value of any of this once it's all over, historically speaking.

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    I feel like there might be the nub of a good point in here - something along the lines of, people who have only seen one side of a company, like stability or growth, tend to take those things for granted? - but it needs much more explanation (especially of the bullet point list) and some pointer on what can be done or why maybe nothing can be done (answering the actual question) – user568458 Dec 7 at 6:52
  • @user568458 How's that? – Jesse Steele Dec 8 at 15:44

You could use joking hyperbole. Like it is said "what we do if X gets under bus", while usually it does not mean that X would be really killed in accident, but rather "move on to new challenges". If your colleague is reasonable they would get the idea. If they don't, you have done what you could.

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