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How Mr. Watercooler Destroys Company Culture

1024 576 David DeWolf

We’ve all worked with someone who is the hub of office politics and company culture.

Sometimes he is the physically fit one who actually drinks his 64 ounces of water every day. Other times, he’s the one who’s always filling up his coffee. He can also be the social butterfly that can be seen chatting his way through the office with ease.

Regardless of why, they are often congregating, pontificating, and sharing their thoughts in “exclusive” conversations at the watercooler. In fact, they are Mr. Watercooler.

This water, coffee, or gossip gives Mr. Watercooler life. He thrives off of being the hub of information. His thirst for influence can wreak havoc and destroy your company culture.

Our Mr. Watercooler was one of our best. He knew our industry. He was seasoned. He had grand ideas – some spot on, some out of left field. But regardless, he was sharp. A great idea guy, and he was a good soldier. Even if you disagreed with his idea, he’d fully support it and plow forward with execution. At least he said he would.

Unfortunately, he was Mr. Watercooler.

It took me a while to figure out Mr. Watercooler. Because of his initiative, willingness to debate, and staunch public support, he appeared to be a great culture fit. He was exceptionally talented. Opinionated, but talented.

What I didn’t know almost killed me.

After he followed through on his commitments, he became Mr. Watercooler. After his public statement, he’d clarify it for others in private. He’d make sure that his inner circle of influencers knew his real opinion. He wanted to be the source of information flow and as a result, he built rapport by sharing stories, confidential information, and, most importantly, his opinions.

People felt like they were in his “exclusive” inner circle. In reality, they were one of the sheep.

Mr. Watercooler would gripe privately. He would complain. He shared his “real opinion.” He wanted to be the smartest person in the world and the person others would go to with “the real story.” And ultimately, what he did was plant seeds of doubt, stir up politics, and sabotage our culture.

As a leader, you should encourage debate. You should value disagreement. You should seek differing opinions. But, you should expect it to be an honest and open dialogue. As a leader you want healthy transparency. You want open communication. You don’t want politics.

There is nothing that will destroy company culture faster than Mr. Watercooler.

It’s been years since Mr. Watercooler left 3Pillar. I recently heard that he’s had two short stints at other employers and that the most recent departure was related to politics. Apparently Mr. Watercooler wasn’t just griping about 3Pillar, he really was just griping.

Don’t let Mr. Watercooler destroy your company culture. He either has to change, or he has to go.