We have all worked with one before. That person who behind the scenes has the ear of many but only their true self-interest at heart.
I refer to them as “The Workplace Whisperer” and they can be lethal. What I mean by Workplace Whisperer is a person who has the trust of those around them but will provide conflicting, self-serving messages that promote themselves at the expense of others. No matter how many tools you use to keep you team in-check like the Time Doctor for instance, the Workplace Whisperer has no tool available to monitor and identify them.
Unlike a Trusted Advisor or Consultant who advises based on the best outcomes for their client, or at the very least seeks mutually beneficial outcomes, the Workplace Whisperer shapes a purely selfish message to sound magnanimous, sincere and selfless. Often they can be viewed by Senior Management or Clients as indispensable advisors or highly valued confidantes. Even to colleagues they can appear as close friends or mentors but it only when the mask slips, and over time usually it does, the split between the Workplace Whisperer and their target is swift and messy.
I recently had an encounter with a Workplace Whisperer and developed some key actions I performed to manage that specific scenario but also for any future encounters. In this piece, I share them with you.
So, what to do?
The first thing you must be able to do is actually identify them!
Identifying a Workplace Whisperer
- Whether you are an Owner, Manager or Colleague, you must be able to differentiate between a true Confidante and the Workplace Whisperer. The easiest way to identify one is to look backwards. A Workplace Whisperer usually leaves a trail of destruction behind them and whilst the history might reflect a list of others who have been blamed for the chaos, the Workplace Whisperer is always attached. This could be from simply providing advice to being directly involved in the mess but managed to shift the blame. Their work history is rarely stable, rumours do follow them and performance and achievements has to be articulated by them, not their peers.
- Examine their work ethic – the whispering is usually a defence mechanism designed to mask a low work ethic, reduced output or lack of skills
- Listen to the consistency of their message. If it changes for you, it will be changing for everyone. Listen to your peers and colleagues. If the feedback is that the messages are different, well you know the saying…where there is smoke…there is fire.
- Evaluate if their behaviour changes based on who they are talking to. In my view, there is only one YOU regardless of whom you are speaking to. If a person is ready to change how they act and what they say when an influential or even a junior team member is around, they are untrustworthy. If they bully or are aggressive to the juniors and overtly friendly with the key Stakeholders, then the behaviour is a sign of deception, either now or later.
You identify a Workplace Whisperer – how do you manage this situation?
The most important thing is to be very careful. Usually they are well regarded, influential and clever. Below are 5 actions you can take to manage your encounter with them:
- Minimise Contact – try and reduce contact as much as possible. Stick only to work related or high level personal discussions even though they will probe deeper. Never discuss peers or people. Never discuss negative aspects of the work you are performing. Document everything and file for future reference.
- Promote Accountability – if you are working in a team environment, the Workplace Whisperer will likely have pushed all accountability away from them. If you are in a position to do so, the accountability must be transferred to the Workplace Whisperer wherever possible. This may prove difficult however; sticking to process related discussions and leveraging the support of leaders around you should assist.
- Keep Your Accountabilities Under Control – Make sure your backyard is squeaky clean and that what you are accountable for is under control.
- Build a History – Meet with your HR (or someone independent and qualified if you don’t have one) and build a history of events without formalising any actions. The Workplace Whisperer will rely on relationships and deception. You need to rely on process and facts.
- Be Ready to Walk – You need to be ready to leave if things get too precarious. But as part of your decision to leave, and bearing in mind that the 5 above actions have been taken, a credible employer will take your desire to leave and the root causes for it seriously. This may not change anything however so your departure cannot be a bluff. Be ready to walk if you have to.
I do not advocate challenging a Workplace Whisperer directly as this will not only escalate the situation, it will not provide you the opportunity to perform the 5 actions above.
If you are a Leader reading this and you think that one of your advisors falls into the Workplace Whisperer category, I recommend shifting your relationship to a more fact based and formal relationship. This will provide you a period to review and confirm. If your suspicions are proven, act fast. Not only will you improve the trust within your team, there will likely be many people who quietly applaud your conviction.