Combatting Workplace Rumors with Good Communications

EPISODE 73 |  Andrew Brown, co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications

Water cooler talk has moved online, so the number, spread and speed of workplace rumors is growing every day. Ignoring rumors or putting out bad messaging to combat them can do more damage than the original rumor itself. Organizations have to understand the reasons why employees might create or spread rumors, how their communications and culture might be contributing to the rumor mill, and how to take a proactive approach to combat them.

Andrew Brown walks us through the conditions that create fertile ground for rumors, the very human and social reasons behind them, and some real-world stories and advice for how organizations should and should not try to manage rumors in the workplace.

  • Understand three levels where rumors take hold
  • Learn about the three conditions that allow rumors to rise and spread
  • Hear four common but ineffective approaches that organizations often take
  • Discover the traps that organizations often fall into when addressing rumors
  • Get three tips for things an organization can do to combat rumors
  • Explore how the hybrid office, technology and different generations play into it

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Get more advice and free tools on the Academy of Business Communications website


Transcript

Derek DeWitt: You know, anytime human beings gather together and talk to one another, they may all think they’re on the same page, but very frequently, they’re not. This is especially true at, for example, family gatherings, Christmas, Thanksgiving, maybe when the wine or the beer is flowing a little more freely than usual. And pretty soon you start to realize that, well, I thought Uncle Tony thought about this thing this way, but actually I’m beginning to think that he might be deeply, deeply weird.

The same thing goes true for the workplace. It’s a bunch of people all doing their separate tasks, in theory to help the company make money and be successful. But even in places like that, human beings are interacting with other human beings. And well, they talk about stuff that has nothing to do with work.

Any of us who’ve ever worked in an office environment know that they can sometimes become hotbeds of distrust, misinformation, rumors, and even conspiracy theories. To talk about that with me today is Andrew Brown, co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications. Hello, Andrew. How are you?

Andrew Brown: I am excellent. Derek. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast today and welcome to all your loyal listeners.

Derek DeWitt: Ha! All four of them, yeah.

Actually, you know what, why don’t we go ahead, and we’ll just do a teeny bit of background on what ABC is.

Andrew Brown: Thank you, Derek. The Academy of Business Communications is a company that helps organizations make sure their employee communications suck less.

Derek DeWitt: Ha!

Andrew Brown: Employee communications is an area where leaders, middle managers, frontline managers, have assumed for decades that because they listen, they listen well; because they write, they write well; because they speak, they speak well. Well, all good intentions, but the sad truth is that people within organizations are just like everyone else. There are some good and there’s some not so good skills running around. And so, we help harness employee communication so that organizations can rally the troops, get their messages aligned, keep them authentic and help organizations thrive.

Derek DeWitt: Well, that seems like a very noble cause.

Andrew Brown: It does sound like that, doesn’t it?

Derek DeWitt: So yeah, you know how it is, a bunch of people get together and there are always…it’s a little bit like high school. A lot of office environments I, myself, have worked in remind me a bit of high school where you get these, you do, you just have clique’s – you got the cool kids, you got the nerds, you got the outcasts, you got the stinky guy. You got all these different people. And especially over time, you really do start to see these, sort of a microcosm of society start to play out there in the cubicle farm.

Andrew Brown: Quite right. And I was a rocker, okay, just to go on the record. So, I was one with long hair that no person, no one understood because I was listening to rock music. But you’re right, there are cliques, there are subgroups. And each of those have its own, if you will, culture; that is a set of values, a set of stories, a way of behaving that’s acceptable. And that happens within organizations.

Derek DeWitt: So, one of the things that drives me crazy about working in an office environment, which is one of the reasons I don’t do that anymore, is the non-work-related stuff. The personality clashes, the rumors, the weird ways that people try and undermine each other and undercut each other. If there’s a hierarchical sort of promotion system, the way that people will try and stomp on others in order to get ahead over their fellow coworkers, and so on. This is typical, right? This is true in even smaller organizations.

Andrew Brown: Well, I think it’s fair to say that office politics, the struggle for power and power takes many forms in organizations, but all organizations have to grapple with that. And some are more effective than others. But to your point, there are conspiracies if you will, or rumors that fly around organizations. And in fact, I’d argue that conspiracy theories, you know, whether it’s around COVID or about who’s sleeping with whom or why someone is paid more than someone else or who stole my gosh darn yogurt from the fridge, all those rumors, all those conspiracies really are a flavor of rumors.

And if we really examine it, there are, if you will, three different levels as to why rumors take hold in organizations. And if you’ll bear with me, I’ll go through the three levels. And I think that we also have to ask a question why now? Why at a particular point in time do rumors take hold? I’m gonna I break it down again to three levels.

Level one, individual. As human beings, we’re always looking to make sense of our lives. And rumors are just like any story; they’re a part of our attempt to ground ourselves. And why is that? Because as soon as we believe something to be true or make sense, you know what, we don’t have to find another, sometimes more unpleasant or more complicated, answer to the problem. So, rumors provide us with, if you will, psychological comfort. You know, when we feel uncertain about things, having a rumor to hold onto provides us with a sense of comfort and knowing and power over those things that we feel uncontrollable or uncomfortable.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. I was just going to say, it almost gives like the illusion of a sense of control. Like, I can’t control the events or, you know, the pay structure or something like that, but at least I know what’s going on.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. And I don’t have to think about it. It’s resolved if you will. Right? And as hunters and gatherers, as a species, we always were looking for those things that we could rely on, so we didn’t have to be concerned that someone was going to stab us with a spear, right? We look for that, that is hardwired into us.

So that at the individual level, but of course, organizations are also very social animals, right? So, there’s the group level. That’s the second level. We’re always getting cues from one another as to what is acceptable and therefore what we must do to truly be accepted in a group. So, when someone acknowledges, accepts and even spreads rumors, that’s a way that they sort of identify as being a member of a specific group, and, of course, not of other groups. And let’s not forget that in a group, if you’re seen to have a secret or privileged knowledge or an inside scoop or an answer that simplifies and makes comfortable something that’s complex, you get social power.

Derek DeWitt: That’s true. Social currency, exactly.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. And there’s reinforcement, right? That group props up someone’s importance. And again, that ties back to the individual level, a sense of self-importance. Great, look at the group has done it, it’s validated me. And of course, social power ties to the third level, the organizational level.

So, let’s talk about organizations, right? They’re, as you said, they’re hotbeds of stories, right? In fact, organizational culture is often defined largely as the stories that are told and remembered within a specific geography, a specific company. For example, you know, we’ve all heard of origin stories or stories of great success, or those stories where colleagues are promoted or fired, which, you know, as an aside, is why it’s so darn important for organizations to capture and retell important stories that epitomize the values and the behaviors that are important for that company to thrive. So, you know, when you think about rumors, trying to strip storytelling (and that’s, again, rumors are a form of story), trying to strip those from organizations simply cannot happen.

And finally, you know, organizations aren’t impermeable bubbles, right, that are magically excluded from the stories that are told in the community or within an industry or within a geography, or even within a particular period of time. All that messy, outside-of-the-organization context also can be the source of, and amplifies, rumors within organizations. So, that’s that in a nutshell. It’s again, those three levels, individual, group and organization.

So to my mind, I’m going to jump unless you, unless you put the brakes on me, Derek, I’m going to jump to what I think is an important, related question. That is, for organizations, they have to answer the question, why now? That is, what are the conditions that have brought about so that the rumor can take hold in organizations. And luckily there’s been research done on this, in why are organizations fertile ground for rumors taking hold. And simply put, rumors rise and spread when any two of the following three conditions apply.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So, you just need two out of three, and it will happen.

Andrew Brown: Two out of three. Exactly. In fact, most of the time all three exist, but two of the three. The first condition is uncertainty, right? That could be job uncertainty. Uncertainty about Hey, you know, we’re coming back from COVID, right? Are people coming back? Who’s coming back. Who’s going to be doing what? Where people are going to be working. And you know, this hybrid workplace, there’s a lot of built-in uncertainty. And of course, whenever there’s a merger, an acquisition, a restructuring, a downsizing, and there’s shifting towards a different geographic region, an office move, right? All that increases uncertainty.

But you know, uncertainty has to be bundled with at least one other condition. The second condition is risk, right? If there was no risk of any of those changes, then the stakes wouldn’t be high, and people wouldn’t care and look for answers. So there has to be a sense of risk. And again, we’re talking COVID times, can you think of a risk that’s higher than people getting sick and dying? Because quite frankly, I can’t.

Derek DeWitt: Risk meaning potentially negative outcome for me and mine.

Andrew Brown: Exactly, well put. The third condition is a gap in trust. Now, trust of leaders, trust of managers, or even of fellow colleagues. We always assume, when we’re talking about organizations, that leaders are trusted. Heck, most leaders believe that they are trusted by their employees. But the nature of trust is challenging, isn’t it? It’s fragile. And the unfortunate truth is that most organizations don’t really know how to establish, grow, sustain, and protect this all-important trust. So, it’s quite likely that the trust you hope your leaders have, if you’re dealing with rumors, just isn’t there. And if they’re the ones crafting or sharing messages, you could actually be doing more damage than good by using the leaders.

So again, these three conditions almost universally arise during any big company change, as I say, you know, mergers, acquisition, all those. Can be even a smaller change, someone being promoted, a technology being ramped out. That’s huge. It seems like such a small thing, but speak to any project manager, human resource manager and you’ll see that there’s churn when there’s technology being rolled out. So, uncertainty, risk and trust. Those are the things that need to be addressed if you’re going to address rumors.

Derek DeWitt: I’m reminded of a story. My wife’s mother used to tell of when, you know, she was a secretary, an executive secretary for a long, long time. And then they said, Okay, we’re bringing in personal computers in the 80s. And she was like, I’m sorry, we’re doing what? And she, you know, she’s like, I’ve been doing this for ages here. I can’t learn how to…. I mean, she was absolutely beside herself. She was worried. She couldn’t sleep very well; she didn’t really eat. She was just like kind of a mess. And so that bled over into her regular life. And then, because she’s not eating and sleeping correctly there that bleeds back, so it creates this kind of negative feedback loop over and over where she just got more and more, almost hysterical about, Oh, I’m never going to learn this. And that actually did prevent her from mastering personal computers, at first. She eventually got it. And then she was like, Ha ha, I don’t know what I was so worried about. But during that time period, she was extremely unsteady.

Andrew Brown: Right! And that makes sense. Right? We can all relate to that. There again, great deal of uncertainty. She didn’t know it was going to happen. There was a risk because of her job and a sense of self, what is she going to be doing? And that would be the time when, if someone came to her and said, Yeah, you know what, they’re restructuring and we’re going to be losing all our jobs. You know, she would have probably been more suggestible at that time. And, if you layer on top of that, if she didn’t trust her manager, who was saying things like, You know, we’re going to skill you up, there are going to be some bumps on the road but we’re going to make sure that you’re supported on this because we need you, you’ve got organizational knowledge, got a skillset that’s important to us, we like working with you, we believe you provide value. If there wasn’t someone there, or she didn’t trust that person, well, and again, fertile ground for rumors.

Derek DeWitt: Sure, that makes sense. You know, all of this, too, it kind of brings me to mind almost of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy. Keep in mind, we’re talking about businesses and companies, but this goes for anything. This goes for a school, this goes for a class, this goes for a theater company, this even just goes for a weekend touch football team. This is true for any time human animals get together in aggregate, you know. But the first thing is like physiological needs, physical needs. There’s warmth, there’s food, there’s water, there’s a toilet. And, you know, ha ha, we say, well, of course a company has those things. Well, you know, back in the early days of the industrial revolution, maybe not. So, just the fact that we have that guaranteed is a step up, I think.

Andrew Brown: That it, yes. And in fact, I had done some research years ago on taking a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy, taking a look at some of the more recent literature suggesting that different cohorts value things slightly differently. It’s a great framework, because all the buckets are there, but as people are at work in the, you know, the Gen X, the Gen Y, the Gen Z, some of the priorities of that hierarchy actually shifts a bit.

Derek DeWitt: Oh, really? That’s interesting.

Andrew Brown: Yeah!

Derek DeWitt: So, just to toss out there for those that don’t know what it is, it’s physical safety. And then after you have that dealt with, your physical needs, it’s security and the feeling of not being in danger. And then once that is dealt with, you can get into belonging, friendship, cohorts or tribal affiliation, if you will. And then after that, once that’s dealt with, you can then get into feelings of prestige and feelings of accomplishment. And that’s about where most companies and organizations stop. They never really get to the top part, which is the self-actualization, which is like…

Andrew Brown: Self-actualization, yeah.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. How to fulfill yourself and grow as a person and, and yes, as a worker. But I think most companies or many companies in the past, certainly that was just like, What is that hippie crap? We got our, what are you talking about? Just do your job!

Andrew Brown: Well, I think that over the last few decades, there’s been some great strides in that area. And there’re, just like anything, there’re organizations that are, some are more enlightened than others. And some will believe that, you know, we actually want to harness the enthusiasm, the hearts and minds, if you will, of employees. And some are better than others.

Now, when it comes to rumors, companies, too also have a, let’s say a way to tackle it, a playbook. If you will. But the reality is that most don’t have the skills in house to do it well. And quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable to deal with rumors.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, I think most of the time they escalate it up to an HR company, I should think. ‘Cause it used to be HR was like one or two people in an office. And now like there are these professional HR companies. Like, no, it’s got to escalate up to them, let them deal with it.

Andrew Brown: Yeah, and HR people, we’ve got a number of clients in HR that are great at what they do, but perhaps not equipped to deal with rumors. And organizations typically, let’s say, have an approach. I said a playbook, maybe that’s a bit optimistic. Let let’s say they have an approach, a handful of things that they will typically do.

Often the first standpoint is they don’t even acknowledge the rumors going on. They avoid it. Think of it as the no-comment approach. You can understand why, they’re uncomfortable. And again, if what is giving root to the rumors is that uncertainty, the high risk and gap in trust, it’s tough to tackle those. So again, don’t acknowledge them, that’s an approach. Another approach is distract, right? Let’s push through a whole bunch of messages in the hopes that people will forget that rumor from flying around. Another approach, I call it, the daddy-says approach; so the leaders call everyone together and they push this message across and say, There! Wash their hands with it. I’m done, right?

Derek DeWitt: And so are you, dammit!

Andrew Brown: Exactly, exactly. They try to bury it. And some also package that with a survey, right? It’s Oh, let’s, let’s find out what’s happening, but it’s, it’s more, I would call listening theater, right? It’s not genuinely trying to understand. But underlying all of these tactics is the assumption that the organization knows where the rumors are coming from, which they often don’t; that they can stamp them out because they have control over hearts and minds, and that they control every channel, and they don’t.

Oh, another one is to bribe people. I’ve been in organizations where they’ll try to call in the people that they see as being leaders of the rumors or ones that tell the rumors, and try to bribe them and show them that things aren’t all that bad. But none of these methods really, or these tactics, really require listening to people and hearing them. And none of them deal with the root causes of uncertainty, risk and trust.

Derek DeWitt: And yet, like you said, they very often don’t know where the rumors are coming from. You know, the assumption is always, I think, and my personal experience has often been, very often it comes from like, just like one bad apple. There’s that person, God knows what’s going on in their life, they just kind of poison the water everywhere they go. It’s almost like they delight in the chaos that they’re causing. How are you supposed to handle that? Besides firing them?

Andrew Brown: Well, we found that rumors tend to be more systemic, and when you have a fertile ground…. Yes, there are a rabble-rousers, there’s no doubt that there are, or passionate people. They could be people who’ve been with the organization for 20 years and really believe in the organization and believe in its mandate and they want to see it succeed. But it’s that fertile ground. The methods that we just talked about aren’t as effective as they used to be. And there are certain reasons why.

First, I would say rumors don’t fit neatly in a box, right? They span offices. They permeate discussions. They linger for days, weeks or years. You know, if you’ve ever lived through an acquisition or a merger, some rumors will live on for years.

Derek DeWitt: Even when the surface justification for those rumors is gone, it’s still there. Even if nothing else, just a generalized suspicious attitude.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. Again, I think that that reinforces that there has to be a fertile ground. The other reasons why all those methods don’t work, let’s face it, technologies are available today for spreading rumors and building on them faster than ever before. And we rely on those very technologies for getting work done. Do you really think a company is going to shut down its Slack, its Zoom meetings, its emails, its intranets? It’s just not going to happen.

Derek DeWitt: It’s going to put one of those Israeli cell phone blockers.

Andrew Brown: Yeah, exactly. Or, or that technology that watches people, right? Which again, if you’re concerned about trust, that’s not the way to go about dealing with it.

Also, internal rumors can spread to becoming external rumors. You know, when you think about Indeed, Glassdoor and Google reviews, you know, people saying what’s it like to actually work in a place. And that can have an impact on recruiting. And those rumors, when spread out, can have an impact on the ability to close new deals, or getting partners to refer to you or suppliers working with you. So, this prevents that old stamping out and distracting and bribing and daddy-says approach. It renders all those tactics illegitimate. And I’d also just add that employees, generally speaking from sort of the ages of 25 to 50, sort of a Gen Z, are really a cohort that the demands transparency more than ever at work.

Derek DeWitt: Millennials, certainly, like it’s just a given. And Gen Zers, who are now entering the workforce, they just seem to consider it a given. Like they’re almost befuddled when there isn’t transparency. They’re kind of like, Wait, what? I asked you a question and the answer is none of my business? What kind of an answer is that?

Andrew Brown: And anyone that’s managed an organization knows that there can be transparency. That doesn’t mean telling everything to everyone. That’s not transparency. But there is that sense from that group, as you say, they are looking for transparency, although they don’t always define it well. People aren’t always good at explaining the reason why behaviors happen or why policies are in place. So, it’s a dynamic that has to be addressed. And this group also is skeptical of authority.

And finally, add to that, the emotional connection that this cohort has for companies is generally weaker. That is, they don’t see work as a reason for living. And of course, that emotional connection is made weaker when there’s not a physical sharing of space during COVID.

So, when you combine the cohorts, when you talk about how quickly rumors can spread, the reliance on technologies and the messiness of rumors, you see, you know what, all those other methods typically used for dealing with rumors, ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

Derek DeWitt: It would seem to me that if uncertainty, risk or, you know, danger and then trust are the three factors that very much contribute to that kind of pick-a-little, talk-a-little environment, it would seem to me that the way to counteract those is to do the opposites. If there’s uncertainty, create certainty. If there’s, people feel like they’re at risk in some way, assure them that they’re not and give them proof. If they don’t trust you, find out what you would have to do in order for them to trust you, and then do those things. Is that just too simplistic?

Andrew Brown: Well, your approach is bang on, but in organizational life, how, when you get a bunch of people and they’re working in different areas, they may not fully understand what one another do because of specializations, they may work in different geographies, different time zones, different tasks. There is endemic, hate to use that word at this time, but yes, it takes an enlightened, deliberate series of intentions in order to keep uncertainty down, in order to help people understand the risks to the company, to their departments, to the individuals. It takes effort to build and sustain trust. Because again, trust is very fragile, and there are a number of things that lead into trust. And again, you can’t assume that’s it.

But you’re right. Companies should not try to, they shouldn’t try to focus on trying to convince someone that what they believe is wrong. Right? It should be about creating a work environment where rumors don’t take hold in the first place. And as you said, those three elements. So, that’s the first thing that they should do.

Second, I’m going to give it a bucket of three. Second, there is a difference between rumors and behaviors coming out of groups, right? Because if I believe something that might be batshit crazy, and I act on it, that might hurt a colleague, that might damage the reputation for the firm. The company needs to have policies for behaviors that are damaging to their business, to their reputation, to fellow communities or the community at large. So, if a rumor sparks damaging or dangerous behavior, they need to have those policies and implement them. And how they do also sends a strong message to the rest of the workforce and really reinforces what is truly valued in a company. So, we can’t forget that rumors can jump to behaviors.

Third thing to do is start prioritizing rumors, right? And there are two dimensions that really should be considered. One, the damaging nature of the rumor. That is, if this rumor spreads and lingers and is believed, what implications are there for the business? And the second dimension is the number of people or offices who are affected by the rumor. ‘Cause some rumors are very contained in a department or an office, or even a specific time period. And of course, you’ve always got to be monitoring rumors, and using your colleagues to capture and assess those rumors along those two critical dimensions.

So again, I would say there are those three things. Yeah. Don’t think you’re going to solve it by trying to convince someone. Second, make sure that there are policies that are clear, concise, and enforced around when the rumors turn into dysfunctional behaviors. And third, prioritize and monitor for rumors.

Derek DeWitt: Like you said, trust is such a weird, ephemeral thing and there is no standard for if we do A and B, then we will get trust, because it really depends on a whole bunch of factors, including subjective elements.

Andrew Brown: Yeah. There are some great models for trust building, but that takes a really skilled hand. And because the nature of trust is one that is fragile, that is, you can spend decades building trust and then you can do something that can torpedo it overnight. And so, there is the appearance of building trust and then there’s genuine trust. And that’s what organizations really work on.

I mean, if you’ve worked in any organization, you know, there are people that are truly trusted, that you believe will do what they say that they do, that have your best interest and also have some competence.

And in fact, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a model called the ABI model of trust and that’s ability, benevolence and integrity. It doesn’t just happen at the leadership level, it happens at middle managers, it happens at the individual, sort of the lowest person on the totem pole, or in the most distance office because trust happens interpersonally. It’s not just a top down. It really is a process of co-exploring. I know that sounds kind of airy fairy,

Derek DeWitt: Very, very modern, hippy-dippy stuff, yeah.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. But the truth of the matter is that conspiracies are often tied to emotions because, we talked earlier about the individual, the group and the organization. So, it is an emotionally-laden, emotionally-tied activity and set of beliefs. And you don’t get rid of emotions or change emotions with facts. It’s that simple.

When companies do try to deal with rumors, you know – we’ve talked about what they have typically done, why it’s not going to work, and we’ve suggested sort of these three big buckets of what to do – they do fall in traps when they’re trying to deal with rumors. They can fall into a trap of thinking fairness means hearing out or giving attention equally under the guise to try to be fair. We’ll give everyone attention. But the reality is an organization’s inaccurate, uninformed or counterproductive content, messages, whatever you want to call it, should not get equal airplay. They just shouldn’t. So that’s one trap.

A second trap, thinking, you know what, if you just get rid of that one rabble-rouser, you’re good to go, right? But the truth again, as we talked about, there are systemic challenges that have to be addressed, or a different rumor is going to arise as soon as you get rid of the most vocal.

Hoping that rumors will go away, right? Saying, you know, they’ll always be around, so just going to slough it off, that’s another trap. You know, just sort of the complacency, right? I’m just gonna allow it to happen.

Or, it happens all the time, and it’s the one-and-done message, right? It’s the leader that’s going to send the email and, you know, that message has been done. It’s done. No more, no more rumors. We’ve talked about this other trap that’s related to that, and that is that leaders who are deploying the messages have credibility. It is tough to tell a leader of an organization or department or division, Hey, you may not have the credibility that you need in order to dispel or disabuse, or even engage with people around rumors. That’s a difficult conversation to have.

Years ago, I was working for an international professional services firm, and they had a rumor mill that was going like gangbusters, an intranet that just would not stop. And what they thought, We’ll just shut the channel down. We’ll just take it down and there won’t be any rumors.

If you see yourself doing any of those things, giving time where it’s not deserved. If you think getting rid of rabble-rousers and you’re good to go, hoping that rumors are going to go away, sort of the one-and-done, or relying on leaders without validating that they have credibility; if you’re doing any of those, stop, take a breath, because you’re likely not addressing the uncertainty, the risk and the trust.

Derek DeWitt: All right. But what do you do when the leader is crazy? They are the ones who are causing this uncertainty. They lash out, they have this ridiculous temper. Maybe they’re a drunk, who knows? And so, the atmosphere for rumormongering and more serious things like conspiracy theories is coming from the top. I know, like I said, we’re talking about companies, but I think it’s the same for families or for sports teams or for any grouping of people. Sometimes the person who is the problem is the one at the top of the pyramid.

Andrew Brown: A few years ago, I had a client who was a perpetual liar. And he lied about what business was coming in, he lied to people about their compensation, he lied to them about opportunities. There was very little he said that was true. And to your point, Derek, it permeated the organization. Middle managers became very accustomed to lying to him and to one another. Clients were discovered that whenever they heard from someone within the company, they couldn’t trust it. So, invariably in an organizational setting, someone has to take the bull by the horns. Now there are a number of different ways of confronting the boss. And again, that’s some of that interpersonal discussion that you have to have with them.

But then again, I want to try to get us away from that notion that we want to convince someone of thinking something else. We’re talking about organizations ideally, and trying to stop them from being fertile ground. But leaders who are adding into the mix, making the rumor mill more messy, more confused, they have to be dissuaded. So it’s a matter of, at that point, finding people within the organization that have credibility with that leader and having some of those difficult conversations. But it doesn’t stop there. Because again, we’re talking about organizational life.

So, ideally there are things like honest listening sessions where managers and directors are empowered to demonstrate a willingness to listen to, and for, rumors rather than closing the door and ignoring them. And I don’t mean just doing a pulse survey, right? Again, surveys are often well-intentioned, but they can be problematic. I’m not saying throw them out, but I’m saying tread lightly.

Derek DeWitt: And I think we know people are not always honest on surveys, especially if it’s about something like this. You know, like, Hey, are you the one that’s going around and telling everybody that, you know, Fred is a cannibal?

Andrew Brown: What we’ve found, typically, is that employees can have bullshit fatigue, right? If they go through a lot of surveys and nothing happens as a result of the surveys, well, they’re going to become more skeptical of the surveys, right?

Derek DeWitt: Sure. Which just creates more fertile ground for crap.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. Now, again, that’s not to say that surveys, when done well, aren’t useful tools, but they’re one data point, right? In understanding an organization, or in this case where rumors are coming from, who believes them, how deeply entrenched they are and how to deal with them. So, listening sessions are important, demonstrating transparency. And that’s not in a manipulative way of pretending to share something that people want to know.

So, acknowledge that rumors have been actually risen about person X or topic Y. Speak candidly about the discomfort and the impact that these rumors have on the organization. Speak to human consequences, thus demonstrating that you know personal risk. And remember we said earlier about uncertainty, risk and trust.

If organizations demonstrate that they are empathetic, that goes along way. You know what? I’ve been heard. That is one of the most consistently found nuggets of all research across organizations. People want to be heard. It addresses the risk, right? Gives that sense of transparency. It also, it’s a key foundation to trust building. Because trust, you need to believe that someone cares about you and what matters to you or what is important to you. And people won’t believe that unless you can demonstrate that you’ve listened to them. You can’t know what someone wants unless you’ve listened to them. So, listening, demonstrating transparency, that’s really important.

Establish a cadence of communications to share information, to answer questions. You know, town halls are wonderful things. And at the academy, we’ve done a series on town halls, and we’ve got this one-page checklist for town halls. But they should be opportunities for leaders to actually listen and acknowledge rumors, because they can be addressed quickly, then and there. Again, they’re not going to go away because, again, there’s got to be that fertile ground that has to be addressed.

And you know, you should, you know you said earlier about a sub-series or a sub-responsibility; I would not give it to necessarily to HR. HR has to be involved because they should have a pulse on the organization, but, let’s face it, in the new hybrid work environment where people are working in different geographies and are being Zoomed to death, you can’t rely on HR alone to be in every meeting and listening and understanding where people’s concerns and fears are.

So, there needs to be a concerted effort for that listening, for that observing. HR can coordinate it. But I think that the comms folks, project managers, department heads need to act as ears, the active ears, and helping people understand what the reality is on the ground, as well as helping the leaders to understand, Hey, you know what, there are some challenges here. Why are those happening? And, again, I would say to a point that we’ve hit a few times, credibility to address the rumor has to be looked at.

And sometimes, because organizations are politically charged, right, everyone’s got skin in the game, sometimes you have to look externally and use an external consultant who will not bring with them the baggage that, let’s say, the head of a department or a field manager, or even the leader has. So, you can leverage them. They can provide a “fish outside of water” view to help identify the severity of the rumors, how widely they’re promulgated, a strategy to deal with them and help the leaders address those three foundational things. Again, lack of trust, uncertainty and risk.

Derek DeWitt: Well yeah. You know, it’s interesting, I read something recently, it was this whole article on, Hey, how do you talk to, you know, Uncle Tony, to the conspiracy theorist in your family or at work or whatever? And it’s this, like, first off, like you say, don’t try to convince them they’re wrong because it’s not going to work. And why is that? Well, there are a bunch of theories as to why.

My personal theory has always been that because we know, on an intellectual (subconscious, but nonetheless intellectual) level, I know what I’m saying about Area 51. I believe it’s true, but I don’t know it’s true. And belief is not knowing something. And so, I sort of, I sort of make up for that fact deficit by putting in emotion. And then I really add to the pile by throwing in my own ego, my own sense of self and self-worth. So therefore, when you attack that idea, you’re attacking me. It feels like you’re attacking me personally.

You’ve got to kind of be careful when you’re looking at how rumors, and by extension conspiracy theories, which let’s face it, conspiracy theories are just a sort of hyper-rumor in many ways. There’s no particular evidence and I think that they thrive in the exact same kind of environment as just lower-level rumors, you know. Bob has a little bit of a gambling habit; Bob is a cannibal; Bob is an alien from outer space; it’s all really just variations on the same theme.

But the main thing to keep in mind is that rumors and conspiracy theories thrive in an environment of uncertainty, risk (or a sense of personal risk) and a lack of trust. Then you throw in emotions and ego into it, and holy smokes, pretty soon Thanksgiving dinner ends in tears for everybody.

Super, super interesting stuff, Mr. Brown, I’d like to thank Andrew Brown, co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications, for talking to me about this stuff today. It’s something I think that’s always been a part of at least 20th century organizational politics and organizational societies, and as I’ve said several times here, by extension, any other grouping of people. But it does feel like these days there are more of them, things are getting shriller, people are more intractable. And so, it really is something to think about, you know?

Andrew Brown: Yes. Well, we’ve seen more people reaching out to us. Yes. We’ve seen that within organizations that rumors are promulgating, they’re moving faster, again because of technology, because of the uncertainty. We also find that rumors happen when there’s any kind of drastic change. And again, that could be rolling out a new technology, it could be changing work environments, doing an office move. If there is a change, it tends to be the time when rumors start to happen. Again, because of those three things, we’ve talked about uncertainty, risk and the lack of trust.

Derek DeWitt: So, yeah, it can be a pretty dicey and even feel a little bit dangerous when you’re a part of any group or organization where things are just unsettled and not doing well. But if you want help navigating the stormy seas of innuendo, rumor and conspiracy theories, you can always talk to Andrew Brown, co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications. How can people reach out to you if they would like to access some of your resources or maybe even consult with you and say, Help, my place has turned into a madhouse!

Andrew Brown: We’re happy to help organizations. We have a number of clients that are going through rumor management internally and externally, and people can reach us at info@fixmycomms.com. That’s if you want to reach out to us by email.

Derek DeWitt: Double m, right?

Andrew Brown: That’s right. By all means, visit our website at fixmycomms.com or, if you’ve got the typing longevity to type in academyofbusinesscommunications.com, by all means do that. We can certainly have a discussion to help you put into perspective and provide you with some tools so that you can better assess and manage rumors within your organization.

Derek DeWitt: They have really an astonishing array of resources. So, it is very worth checking out, regardless of whether or not you’ve got a whole bunch of pick-a-little, talk-a-little over the backyard fence going on or not. There’s lots there for everybody. All right, Mr. Brown, thank you again for talking to today.

Andrew Brown: Thank you, Mr. Dewitt.

Derek DeWitt: And thank you everybody out there for listening.