The water cooler… almost every office in America has one. It may be an actual water cooler or the break room. It may be a vending machine or the kitchen. The office water cooler is the social center of the company. It’s an oasis where social connections are forged and information is shared. Interestingly, the water cooler is not a modern phenomenon; in fact, it’s one that goes back to at least the fifth century BC.
A History of Butts
If you have ever toured a vineyard, you’ll likely remember walking through rows and rows of wooden barrels in a cool room with the subtle smell of fermented grapes dancing in the air. While the origins of the wooden barrel, or cask, are unclear, one of the earliest known references to wooden casks is from the Greek historian Herodotus who noted that the ancient Mesopotamians used palm barrels to transport wine along the Euphrates River. Throughout history, the wooden barrel has played a critical role in the transportation of all types of goods, from wine to spices to porcelain to water. Sailors relied on barrels of water to quench their thirst during the long journeys exploring the seas. This water barrel came to be known as a scuttlebutt. “Butt” is another name for a cask, while “scuttle” is the action of sinking a ship. The word describes a wooden barrel with a hole in it for sailors to drink. Not unlike its modern equivalent, the scuttlebutt proved to be a key source for information on the ship.
The Corporate Square
The modern-day scuttlebutt serves much like a corporate square. Employees share information with one another and weave together the social fabric of the organization. The water cooler also serves as an opportunity for chance meetings. I’ve written previously about how both Steve Jobs at Pixar and Mervin Kelly at Bell Labs recognized the importance that unplanned interactions play in sparking innovation. Kelly designed long corridors at Bell Labs to encourage chance meetings whereas Jobs fashioned the new Pixar headquarters around a central atrium, which forced people to pass by when heading to another part of the building.
Scuttlebutt in Stocks and Slavery
Phillip Fisher, the famous stock investor, who authored the 1958 book Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, dedicated an entire chapter to the idea of scuttlebutt. Of course he was not referring to a barrel with a hole in it, but rather the practice of listening to the “business grapevine” to gather information on a potential investment. Booker T. Washington, the slave born President of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama wrote about scuttlebutt in his 1901 autobiography Up from Slavery.
“Often the slaves got knowledge of the results of great battles before the white people received it. This news was usually gotten from the coloured man who was sent to the post office for the mail… The man who was sent to the post office would linger about the place long enough to get the drift of the conversation from the group of white people who naturally congregated there, after receiving their mail, to discuss the latest news. The mail carrier on his way back to our master’s house would as naturally retell the news that he had secured among the slaves, and in this way they often heard of important events before the white people at the ‘big house,’ as the master’s house was called.”
Scuttlebutt & Gossip
While scuttlebutt can be an invaluable source of information, it can also be rife with rumors and gossip. A study by consulting firm ISR found that 63% of employees learn of important business matters first through rumor. In his NY Times best-selling book, EntreLeadership, financial guru Dave Ramsey writes, “most people assume the worst times ten when leadership hasn’t built trust with them by telling them the whole truth.” Transparency in communications can quell rumors but gossip is something altogether. Ramsey has a “no-gossip” policy at his company, The Lampo Group. Early on, this was not the case but Dave saw firsthand the destructive power that gossip can have, infecting scuttlebutt and strangling the company culture like a vine on a tree. He writes, “problems or gripes are fine, but they must be handed up to leadership. Problems or gripes that are handed down or laterally are by definition gossip.” Playwright Jules Feiffer likens gossip to “committing little murders.” Nowadays, Dave Ramsey’s team has embraced the no gossip policy, even self-policing to ensure that team members stay accountable to one another.
Scuttlebutt is a natural part of human nature, one that has the power to bind us together or tear us apart. By encouraging transparency and not tolerating gossip, you can encourage a healthy corporate culture. Leaders who ignore the informal communication that happens at the water cooler lose a valuable pulse on the health of the company.
Photo Credit: Gopal Venkatesan