Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Office Whisperer

You’re in an organization that had been doing well, but you sense a bit of unraveling.  People are getting angry, sometimes for minor things. People are starting to get in each others’ faces and tear each other down rather than build each other up. People are talking past each other rather than to each other (see also What We’ve Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate! and When It’s “Us” vs. “Them”, Nobody Wins!). Blame is being placed, sometimes improperly, and pressure to deliver is fraying everyone’s nerves. Roles and responsibilities are unclear and adding to frustration levels. You see people and organizations in the company engaged in what you consider to be self-destructive behavior (see also Self-Destructive Behavior). You see decisions being made in haste that simply don’t make sense (see also The Sky Is Falling!).  You know you’re in a good organization with good people, but things that were working in the past are no longer working well. How does what is becoming a dysfunctional family (see also Dysfunctional Families) get the help it needs to become functional and thriving again? One way comes from within if your organization is fortunate enough to have a great Office Whisperer.

When you have a pet who is hurt due to injury, abuse, or other trauma, you do what you can personally and use professional medical help to get your animal treated and cared for. Often this is enough, but there are cases where more is needed to get your pet on the right track. There are unique people, often referred to as ‘whisperers’, who can help to properly train pets to exhibit proper behavior among other people and animals. In reality this typically involves training the owners of these pets as much or more than training the pets themselves.

The need to get people in the work environment on the right track is also a key need, and there are Office Whisperers who excel at doing this job. This is not a position you advertise or hire for in an organization. It is not an official position at all. It is generally a person within an organization with the personality, fortitude, and mind set to take on this role for the betterment of all. If your organization has the right one, this Office Whisperer can help realign and rebuild your organization into a high performing, well oiled machine. With a unique combination of caring, kindness, patience, impatience, flexibility, firmness, stubbornness, and more, a good Office Whisperer is able to change situations that appear to be unworkable into organization-altering successes.

Office Whisperers are especially helpful when an organization is in chaos and/or significant change, which triggers people to fall into their respective comfort zones or their inherent instinctive behaviors such as anger, stress, fear induced inertia, or negativity. Companies that offer little or no training, inadequate or no mission or value statements, or inconsistent people management systems need Office Whisperers to overcome the void and ‘check’ the instinctive behaviors by informally leading through example. They know when and how to ‘correct’ behaviors in words, deeds, actions, and recognition.

Moreover, when faced with immature leadership, Office Whisperers are often looked to for stability and mentoring not only in workplace skills, but also in business acumen. In the new world economy, where technical skills are critical along with cost cutting at all levels of management, talented general managers have often been overlooked or simply cut in efforts to reduce overhead. What are often left in the new economy workplace are talented task masters who have no role models to help develop leadership, team building, consensus and professional skills.  Office Whisperers are often needed to fill this void.

Good Office Whisperers are most often stellar performers, and they tend to lead by example.  They have the ability to improve top performers into superstars, to turn good and productive employees into great performers, and to turn outcast, problematic, or undervalued employees into effective team members with potential paths to greatness. They build trust within and among organizations (see also Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others! and Can You Pass The Red Face Test?), and foster a strong feeling of team and a desire to accomplish great things for each other and for the organization as a whole (see also Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!). They can also identify the people who are not a match to an organization and help them to understand that they will need to adapt or look for work elsewhere. 

A good Office Whisperer typically does this not with flash or “look at me!” high visibility, but by working calmly and methodically behind the scenes to encourage, persuade, convince, impress, cajole, and lead people by example into performing as their better selves. Often people will not even be consciously aware of the Office Whisperer’s influence (although they will eventually recognize the positive effect the Office Whisperer has had). Also not always visible is the Office Whisperer’s strong will and self-confidence, as well as the recognition of what can truly be accomplished in the organization.

Good Office Whisperers work behind the scenes to elevate the entire organization, one person at a time.  An encouraging word here, an attaboy there, public recognition of a job or jobs well done, never tearing down a person in public (with such discussions held only in private), promoting a positive agenda that improves the office environment for everyone and sets a positive tone for the organization as a whole. Giving credit to those who deserve it and purposefully shifting credit away from themselves. A great Office Whisperer is a treasure to have, who can truly work miracles, often without recognition or acknowledgement.

Not every organization has an Office Whisperer; most do not. It is an unusual person who takes on this role, self-effacing and generous to a fault, seeking the good in everyone and seeking ways to improve everyone’s performance and attitude. If your organization does have one, treasure that person as an invaluable resource. Recognize that person whether they want it or not.  Their value should not be underestimated!

Good and positive Office Whisperers should be recognized and highly valued. However, as with much in life, there can also be a dark side with bad and negative Office Whisperers. As great as the positive impact of good Office Whisperers can be, the negative impact of bad Office Whisperers can be deadly. A bad Office Whisperer is one who cynically makes snide comments that undermine all that an organization is attempting to accomplish, and who initiates destructive forces in an office organization. Some examples are tearing down new initiatives or new directions intended to improve an organization’s effectiveness or capabilities, or undermining the value of efforts that can significantly improve the positioning of the organization or the company. Such a bad Office Whisperer often tries to come off as trying to be ‘helpful’, but really is planting the seeds of discontent.

What do you do when you recognize a bad and negative Office Whisperer in your organization?  Carefully validate the truth of this. Don’t take others’ word for it; a person’s reputation is at stake. Keep a record of what this person is doing to undermine the organization. After you have a clear record of what this person is doing to chip away at the organization, pick the right time to confront this person and present your observations. Give this person an opportunity to explain him/herself, and an opportunity to change his/her ways. A simple nudge may be all that is required to get this person to stop his/her destructive ways and on a productive track. If things don’t change, then it is time to escalate through your chain of management in a quiet fashion that doesn’t call this person out publicly but gets the ball rolling in recognizing the corrosive impact this person is causing.

What do you do when you recognize a good and positive Office Whisperer in your organization? Celebrate him or her. Encourage him or her. Promote him or her with others in the organization and help them understand the true value this person brings. Join with him or her in efforts to improve the organization. Learn from him or her and think about whether you have what it takes to become an effective Office Whisperer yourself. Organizations can always use good Office Whisperers.

[Note: A special thanks and dedication of this blog post goes to Mary Sullivan, who suggested this as a topic, offered excellent improvements to it, and who is a good and positive Office Whisperer par excellence! She is also my friend, and was my colleague and boss. Thank you Mary for all that you do!]


  1. I was considering starting my own company and calling it The Office Whisperer when I decided to check on line to make certain it wasn't already in place. And here you are.....well done.

    1. To Anonymous,
      Thank you for your kind words. The office whisperer I mentioned in the note at the end of the article, Mary Sullivan, is the best I've ever met, and serves as a role model for me and many others. I only hope I was able to perform nearly as well in my career. If you do decide to start your own company in this regard, I wish you all and only the best. and if there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know. It is truly important work!

      Best Regards - Tom Dennis

  2. Nice to read your article! I am looking forward to sharing your adventures and experiences. Maddox Mcdonald


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