Want to know how to control rumors? Here’s the inside scoop
  • leadership
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Want to know how to control rumors? Here’s the inside scoop

“Did you hear? The company’s sales are down 60% because of the pandemic and half of us are going to lose our jobs! Somebody on the sixth floor told me, and he should know.”

That’s what a rumor sounds like. A really harmful rumor, because people who think they’re going to be laid off tomorrow don’t do their best work. They’re too busy jawing about the supposed disaster with colleagues, family and friends — and perhaps updating their resumes.

Why do rumors get started in an organization? And what can managers do to blunt their effects?

A thirst for information

To understand the genesis of rumors, consider this: People naturally feel the need for information about their environment. Over the millennia, the survival of human beings has depended on knowing what’s happening around them.

But in an organization, people often don’t have full information about their present, let alone their future. Organizations don’t feel comfortable sharing everything with employees, for good reasons: confidentiality, trade secrets, relationships with big stakeholders or donors, and the like.

This relative information vacuum causes uncertainty. But that’s something people have to live with in organizations. As a manager, you can’t remove all uncertainty from your employees’ lives.

What you can do something about is the next level of emotional uproar above uncertainty — anxiety. And it’s at this level that the most virulent rumors start and spread.

From uncertainty to anxiety

Psychology professors at the University of Minnesota and Oakland University in Michigan carried out a study that illuminates what happens to the rumor mill when uncertainty turns into anxiety.

The researchers started buzz at a high school that exams had been stolen and the school was investigating. They let the rumor simmer for a few days. This created uncertainty in the student body about what had actually happened, and what the consequences might be.

Then the researchers divided classrooms into an experimental group and a control group. The principal appeared in the room of the experimental group, pointed at a student, and announced, “Please get your hat, coat, and books, and come with me. You will be gone for the rest of the day.” The idea here was to ramp up the room’s uncertainty to anxiety, and it worked.

When the researchers did follow-up interviews, they found that the students who had witnessed the principal’s summons transmitted the rumor to three fellow students. The others transmitted the rumor to only one other student, on average. The anxiety-causing incident tripled the spread of the initial rumor.

But that wasn’t all. The students in the experimental group were more likely to create and spread additional rumors. In that group, 70% of the students spread an average of 12 new rumors. In the control group just 14% of the students spread one or two new rumors.

How to talk it through

What can managers do to quell the anxiety that flings gasoline on the rumor fire? First, keep your ears open. Sometimes people will approach you for the real story, sometimes they won’t. In either case, once you’ve gotten wind of a significant rumor, call in those concerned and:

Reveal what you can.

Suppose you’ve learned confidentially from the C-suite that a division of your company is being sold to another corporation. One employee tells you he’s heard the entire company is going to be acquired. So you give a truthful but limited response, as in, “I can tell you our location is not being acquired and there’s no cause for concern. I’ll share new information as soon as I can.”

Introduce no mixed messages.

In the case above, for example, you wouldn’t want to speculate on any future interest the acquiring party might have in other divisions of your company.

Monitor the rumor.

You might take the employee(s)’ temperature informally the next day to make sure their concerns have been addressed.

Finally, as you address people, recognize that for them you represent the company. Everything you say is amplified. Your response should be calculated to contain uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

If you do all this, will you completely extinguish the rumor? Maybe not. Many employees just plain distrust management, and will retain some lingering uncertainty. But if you’re careful, and as truthful as you can be, they won’t feel the anxiety that amplifies rumors.

(This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module, “Controlling Rumors,” based on the following research study: Schachter, S., & Burdick, H. (1955). A field experiment on rumor transmission and distortion. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 50(3), 363.)


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