You may be familiar with the Chinese Whispers game but if not, let me explain. It works best when you have many participants. The first person whispers in the second person’s ear a seemingly innocuous statement like:

Frank told me that Eddie could eat 7 pancakes with sugar in 5 minutes while Terry could drink 3 cups of tea without sugar in 9 minutes.

The second person has to repeat the statement to the third one and so on. By the time it gets back to the first person, it will have changed quite significantly to have any bearing on the original statement, with, hopefully, hilarious consequences. The game can be made more interesting by playing loud music in the background or asking someone to tell a joke before restarting the whispers in order to dull the whisperers’ recollection of the statement details.

Corporate Chinese whispers may be construed as a game but it is not meant for fun or with innocent intentions. It is an insidious and evil part of the corporate world where people scheme and connive to climb up the greasy career pole, or gain advantage of influence in some way, at the expense of others. Often, a simple and innocent situation occurs and either someone is slightly irritated by it or cynically sees an opportunity to make use of it to further his / her own agenda. In case I am not clear as to what I mean by Corporate Chinese Whispers, let me give you a couple of examples:

  1. You are in a meeting and the boss puts forward an idea and invites comments. You don’t have a strong view about the idea or have not had time to formulate an opinion, as you need more time to process the idea. After the meeting you are asked by one of the attendees what you thought of the boss’ idea and you say something like: I don’t have a strong view on the matter but I’m still considering a position. Within two days your boss calls you in to his office and asks: why are you lobbying against the idea and wouldn’t it have been more honest to speak up during the meeting? Now you are completely on the defensive and you are shocked by how something as neutral as “I am still considering a position” gets translated to lobbying against the idea. The damage is already done and if your boss is the vindictive type, no amount of assurances will alter his view that you are a troublemaker.
  1. You have in the past expressed strong views about pay equality for women and men who do similar roles.   Weeks or even months later, you gradually realise you have been credited of being the ‘agent provocateur’ stirring trouble over pay claims for working overtime, paternity leave, compensation for unused vacations and just about every obscure cause that needs a rebel in the company.

I have personally been a victim of this unpleasant game on a number of occasions and learnt to deal with it as best as I can.

Now, I do not pretend to be the ‘innocent abroad’ who operates above such negativities. Indeed, I pride myself on having a very sensitive political antenna and can quickly spot these games being played and try to protect myself. I also investigate the source and identify the hidden enemy in order to avoid them in the future and more importantly, to minimize my contact with them. However, I really and truly find these activities distasteful and abhorrent. I can also put hand to heart and say I never instigated such games, nor participated in them knowingly or maliciously.

In spite of these avoidance tactics I mention above, I still find myself the target of such games. I have learnt that you simply cannot avoid such games. For as long as you are the active type who is not afraid to take on challenges, to speak your mind and assume responsibility for stuff, you are bound to upset others and make enemies who are prepared to and adept at the Corporate Chinese Whispers game.

Clearly, it is naïve on my part to assume that all is well around me. The trouble is, I don’t always know when what I said or did offended, hurt or angered someone who has the tendency to bear a grudge. So, before I know it, there is a medium-sized storm brewing and heading in my direction.

So how do I deal with such malicious Chinese whispers? Two things are needed:

Firstly, over a sustained period of time, I work very hard to make friends and allies because I know that I have inadvertently made some enemies along the way so, I need some counter balance of supporters who are willing to come to my rescue when I need them. Such friends and supports are invaluable in these circumstances.

Secondly, once I become aware of the raging storm, I make my self more visible but I never go on a campaign of defence lobbying. I believe the harder I protest my innocence, the guiltier I appear to others. So, I am visible and present in the field of play, I maintain public silence on the matter and when pressed to defend myself, I will do so in a measured and quiet manner. Occasionally, I flatly refuse to defend myself at all.

The second tactic may appear counter-intuitive or too docile but because a) it is out of character for me to be less forthcoming and b) because it is more dignified to hold such a position, I am convinced that ‘least said, soonest mended’ actually works in this case.

Finally, I know that sooner or later some event will take place, which will signal my corporate downfall (it happened to me in the past) so, if and when it does, I would like to go down, so to speak, with dignity. More than anything, dignity is the single most important asset of my personality and professionalism I would like to leave the company with it in tact.