How to Deal with Water Cooler Talk in the Workplace

Three experienced managers offer their insights on encouraging a work culture built on trust by asking three questions that help guide managers in performing this important work.

May 20, 2020 | BLOG POST

ICMA’s Coaching Program recently sponsored a webinar titled, Workplace Conduct: How to Deal with Water Cooler Talk.  While many no longer have the old “water cooler” in their workplaces, the term can be synonymous with the many online and in-person venues where informal employee conversations can take place.  While the specific platform for these conversations is not important, the fact that they occur can have positive and negative impacts on our workplaces. 

How do we, as managers, encourage a workplace culture where these conversations can be helpful for our organizations? This work requires much more than simply developing the organizational values that many of us post on our walls, display on our websites or include in our planning documents. It requires deliberate work where we spend time describing, reinforcing, and modeling the values we want to see in our organizations. We also need to take action to correct behaviors that do not reflect the organization’s values. 

During the webinar, three experienced managers offered their insights on encouraging a work culture built on trust by asking three questions that help guide managers in performing this important work:

1. Do you think your personal and professional values intersect? 

Kevin Woodhouse, city manager, Pacifica, California, explained how informal “water cooler” conversations can create challenges because these moments reflect where our personal and profession lives meet.  Under the Responsibility Theory Model, we may first think of these conversations by viewing our personal and professional lives as having separate and distinct values; however, there are likely overlapping beliefs such as honesty, respect, transparency, curiosity, and fairness as examples.  In order to be prepared for the inevitable difficult ethical decisions that occur during a career in local government management, it is important to identify these intersecting values and periodically reexamine them.  Kevin’s March 2020 PM article, “Strengthening Your Moral Compass to Overcome Ethical Roadblocks,” provides further insight into finding these intersections in your personal and professional values.

2. What is your true north? 

We live in disruptive times that present us with complex issues, fractured communities, and polarized politics.  Kate Fitzpatrick, town manager, Needham, Massachusetts, recommended ways to explore how your personal values align with high ethical standards through a decision-making framework to wrestle with difficult choices as part of ICMA’s Athenian Project.  In order to guide you in finding your true north, consider asking yourself:

  • How would this decision align with my personal and professional values and those of my community?
  • What is the risk to me personally? How would this decision affect my family?
  • What is the risk to me professionally and for my community?  How would elected policy makers be affected?
  • What am I willing to be fired for?
  • How would I feel if someone with opposing views took this action?
  • How would my action impact the local government profession as a whole?

The article “What If I Want to March” in the March issue of PM has a more in-depth exploration of these questions.

3. How do you contribute to building trust in your organization?

Jessica Cowles, ICMA’s ethics advisor, recommended starting with assessing your ethical framework. For members, we have ICMA’s Code of Ethics guiding our personal and professional conduct; for nonmembers, this is an opportunity to consider a Code of Conduct to develop core values and standards for which all employees are held accountable, i.e., the importance of being politically neutral in appearance and in fact (see Tenet 7 of the Code of Ethics and its guideline for more information). 

By applying recent research on “Connected Managers,” Jessica offered strategies for employees at all levels within the organization to demonstrate their role in building and maintaining trust:

  • CAOs set the ethical tone of the organization and should establish avenues for mutually respectful, consistent, and clear communication, as well as call on their emotional intelligence to understand when to participate, listen, or observe these “water cooler” conversations.
  • Directors/mid-career professionals should model their commitment to treating all employees fairly and equally and be attuned to concerns bubbling up to provide appropriate mechanisms for constructive dialogue.  They should consider if there are existing processes that convey a lack of trust in employees.
  • Interns/entry-level employees should consider honesty and integrity as their currency for career advancement, follow through on the commitments they make during these hallway conversations, and candidly share their observations but always keep confidences.

Water Cooler Talk. . . it can take place in any venue and center around most any topic, ranging from interpersonal relationships to your local government’s response to COVID-19.  It is indicative of your organization’s true work culture and is something to which you need to pay attention.  As managers, it is your job to not only describe the values you seek for your workplace, but to model and reinforce them as well.  

If you are interested in learning more about ICMA’s Coaching Program or want to learn more about this important topic, visit ICMA Coaching Program Webinars


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