Business

Miss Conduct

Mad Men at work: Managing the rumor mill

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How workplace communication is supposed to happen.

“What did Caroline say?” -- Dawn

“They’re making lists. Somebody’s not going.” -- Shirley

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“The last thing they need is another office manager.” -- Dawn

“Or another black girl.” -- Shirley

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“What is going on? There are rumors flying like bats around here!” -- Meredith

Mergers and acquisitions! Headhunters and career planning! The importance of names and branding! The Glen Coe Massacre! Last night’s “Mad Men” was fabulously rich in business content, a veritable MBA buffet of case-studiable material.

The main plot of the episode was McCann Erickson’s decision to absorb the Sterling Cooper & Partners subsidiary into its own organization. SC&P would lose its offices, its autonomy to run its business processes its own way, and a fair amount of administrative staff: its culture, in other words. The SC&P secretaries are worried about losing their jobs; the account reps and creative are worried about losing everything they like about their jobs.

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Rumors fly like bats indeed. No wonder Meredith was conspicuously shot next to a “World’s Most Accurate Timepiece” ad — twice a day, that stopped clock is dead accurate!

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How workplace communication really happens.

“Gossip” and “rumor” have seedy connotations. Yet gossip — the sharing of social information — is a fundamental human activity. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, suggests that gossip may well be the driving force of the evolution of language. You can point at a mastodon and grunt; explaining to Og that Ooonga is going to take way more than his share of mastodon meat if you let him requires words. Attempts to eliminate gossip and rumors in the workplace are nearly always fool’s errands.

Managing them isn’t, though, and Joan as usual models outstanding workplace etiquette. McCann Erickson — whom loyal viewers have been conditioned to hate — starts the situation by breaking SC&P’s lease in the Time Life building without informing SC&P in advance. Its lack of message discipline creates an immediate atmosphere of distrust; it also clues in lower-level employees (the administrative staff who handle the mail and rent payments) before the partners find out. Trying to rescue the situation, Joan swears the secretaries to secrecy and forces Roger to tell all the partners at once, himself — not a task conflict-averse Roger relishes. (On the other hand, while on-topic gossip is inevitable and can be a force for good, sexual gossip in the workplace is never beneficial, and Roger has been managing to keep the juicy secret of his affair with Marie Calvet under wraps, so let’s give him props for that.) At the end of the episode, Don announces the change to the staff in one of his classic “drowning in champagne” monologues … only to be thoroughly ignored as the secretaries, copywriters, and junior reps talk amongst themselves.

As a dramatic moment, it’s one of the more devastating portrayals of Don’s loss of personal power and charisma the show has given us yet. The man who once said, “If you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation,” has lost the power to do that. As a business lesson, it’s on point: If you don’t get in front of a rumor, and if people don’t trust you to begin with, forget about it.

Gossip fundamentally has to do with trust. Figuring out if a person is trustworthy requires multiple observations over time, and a certain degree of interpersonal risk. How much easier when we can rely not only on our own personal experiences, but on stories and evaluations passed on by others — i.e., gossip. And how much more motivated we are to behave well when we know that others hear stories about our behavior! Hence, gossip is frequently studied as a positive force, one that weeds out bad apples and rewards good behavior. As the title of a recent paper in “Psychological Science” puts it, with admirable punch and clarity: “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups.”

Situational uncertainty exacerbates gossip, and can magnify intragroup alliances and conflicts. Shirley and Dawn, the only African-Americans, have managed to create good working relationships in SC&P — but will their double-outsider status as black women and as former SC&P employees doom them at McCann-Erikson? Pete, reminded by a conveniently placed child of his bond with Peggy, breaks protocol to give her a heads-up about the takeover, news that Peggy shares with her creative colleague and friend Stan. (If you had something other than business on your mind you might also have noticed that Stan’s girlfriend is now out of the picture and oh, my, wasn’t he awfully sweet to Peggy? Please Mr. Weiner, please make it so … )

And once again, Joan’s utter isolation frames the picture. She has no role models, no sponsors, no mentors, no external network of clients that she can walk out the door with, no portfolio of work that she can show off to prospective new employers. She is the only one of the partners not promised her own bigger, better account after the takeover. It’s already been shown that McCann-Erikson views her as something between a pornographic joke and a signing chimp: A female account manager, let alone one of Joan’s show-stopping beauty, simply doesn’t compute. It’s atypical for an employee as alienated as Joan to display the concern with rumor control that she does in this episode — employees who feel badly treated, or who have reason to think sharing scuttlebutt can help them firm up relationships, are often the most prolific rumor-spreaders. But Joan’s career would be worthless if word of how she got her partnership ever got out at McCann Erickson — fearing a rumor campaign against herself, she’s unwilling to start or participate in one.

Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct advice column in the Globe Magazine and works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. She can be reached at missconduct@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @robinabrahams.
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