Rumor Has It…..
Rumors. Thoughts, words, and beliefs that are usually unsubstantiated and spread at the speed of Twitter. Too often rumors are about individuals and groups that have no clue that they are being discussed until it’s too late. “Did you hear? X and Y have been working very late hours, they are probably having an affair”. Malicious gossip and rumors need some grain of perceived truth in order to be most effective. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what is said—as long as it’s juicy enough and has just enough believability factor to be possibly true. The wildfire spread of rumors in a company or a group can be damaging, devastating, long lasting and lead to illegal harassment and bullying. If managers do nothing and knew or should have known you may have significant liability. So what can you do?
Fortunately, there are several ways to deal with the rumor mill. Unfortunately, it takes time and money and effort to quash bad rumors once they have started. It is much easier to create a culture of respect with open and transparent communication than to try to deal with a rumor once the bell has been rung.
First, we need to understand why rumors begin. Simply, it’s a lack of information. Rumors begin when individuals or groups are trying to make sense of something of which they have limited information. So in order to make sense of what’s going on, a rumor starts. When it’s about the company or a group it’s a rumor. When it’s about an individual(s) it’s gossip. The juicier the rumor or gossip the faster it spreads.
Rumors can be divided into three categories: the good, the bad, and the malicious. As a species, we are hardwired to sort information quickly and make connections in our minds to any data that comes in, especially when that information can be linked and put into context with other information and beliefs we already have. We are amazingly fast at putting data into some kind of perspective that relates to our experience. When negative rumors emerge it is also natural to want to share the rumors or gossip it so that our (social) tribe is safer. The rumor mill creates social cohesion among groups. The truth or falsehood of a rumor or gossip matters little if it relates to our personal or social safety. We also will remember a negative or malicious rumor long after we forgot the positive one (see The Visual Impact of Gossip, Alaska Business Monthly, May 2011). The results of gossip and rumors is often power struggles and gamesmanship and bullying in a workplace.
Here is what you can do to prevent rumors and gossip from destroying groups and individuals.
Create and enforce a set of values of who you are as a company or a group and what is important to you. A code of ethics and organizational values are critical to establishing what you stand for and what you expect from everyone who works there. Too often however, companies go on retreats, come up with their values and then post them all over the place and forget about them. A good set of values and ethics are only as good as your willingness to stand by them and make them the pivot points on which decisions are made. If you say you have values you have to walk the talk and live by them, otherwise they become a running joke. IF rumors and gossip are occurring and you do not address them immediately, then you are tacitly approving of them. You have to let people know that rumors are unacceptable. Policies and procedures also must be in place to deal with rumors and gossip and must be enforced.
Communicate openly and honestly. Managers, teams and employees need to communicate their expectations and performance using data. Make performance data visible to everyone. Drive opinions out of performance measurement. When performance is measured in data-based ways then individuals and teams are self-motivated to perform. When it’s opinion-based then it only matters how well liked the employee is and their manager’s opinion has all the power. Addressing rumors head on goes a long way to establish credibility.
Communicate transparently when changes occur and include the “why” that drove the change to occur. If you keep people in the dark on what’s going on then it will start a rumor(s) to make sense of the change. Communicate that rumors are unacceptable and develop policies and methods for addressing them when they occur. When you hear a rumor, be the example of what you should do when addressing it. Ask yourself what would you want someone to do if the rumor was about you? Keep people informed. The more transparent you can be on what’s going on the more you will eliminate the need and desire to fill in the blanks with rumors and gossip. Start discussions on how your group deals with rumors and what they could do better.
Create collaboration and cooperation, a workplace where everyone can win. When teams compete against one another within a company, conflict and rumors become ripe. If you emphasize cooperation and that we only win when everyone wins then collaboration can occur and can be encouraged. In practice, teams that see everyone’s success as necessary for the organizations success will move to support another team that needs help. Organizations that understand this as a key practice will even help outside companies to better themselves in support of their organization!
Stay connected and listen to employees and groups. Management by walking around is a great way to take the temperature of a groups functioning and what they worry about. If you are seen as approachable and available to talk to it goes a long way to dispel rumors before they start and to set the record straight on ones that have started. The side benefits are often overlooked too. By connecting with employees and between different groups loyalty and trust is the natural outcome. In today’s workplaces that’s more precious than gold.
In conclusion, you cannot ignore rumors and gossip in the workplace. They are a natural result of lack of information. You can do a lot to prevent them and to mitigate them if they occur. The choice is yours. Rumor has it you will make the smart choice.
Kevin M. Dee has a master's degree from Vanderbilt University and is the president of KMD Services & Consulting. He has been providing organizational development services, human resources consulting, and leadership development since 1984 in Alaska and internationally. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.