Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 13;   March 26, 2003: There Is No Rumor Mill

There Is No Rumor Mill

by

Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?

Michael was worried. Rumors that the current quarter would be even more difficult were spreading so rapidly that he couldn't see any way to deal with them. He turned to face Lou. "Unless we come up with a plausible story, we'll start to lose people in a couple of weeks."

The common metaphors
about rumors are misleading
"It has to be more than just a plausible story," Lou replied. "It has to be true. If it isn't true, our credibility will be shot."

Lou is pointing out the First Rule of Rumor Management: Credibility Is Your Most Powerful Tool. If even one of your rumor-squelching stories proves wrong, squelching the next rumor becomes much more difficult.

Two common metaphors for rumor generation and propagation are the "rumor mill" and the "grapevine." Both are misleading.

The rumor mill
The Boott Cotton Mills and Eastern Canal

The Boott Cotton Mills and Eastern Canal in the Lowell National Historical Park. Photo by Andrew Donovan courtesy the U.S. National Park Service.

The grapevine
This metaphor suggests that rumors propagate along a linear path. To listen to rumors, you just plug into the grapevine. The actual rumor propagation medium is a tightly connected network of personal relationships. Rumors propagate far more rapidly over this network than they would over any linear structure.

Cutting the grapevine or shutting down the rumor mill doesn't work, because there is no grapevine and there is no rumor mill. Rumors can pop up anywhere, and spread by hopping along personal relationships, fed mostly by anxiety and worry. Here are five strategies for managing organizational rumors.

Credibility is your most powerful tool
Credibility can't quell rumors or limit their formation. But it can launch the Truth. Be clear, be early, and be right.
Repair your credibility when it gets tattered
Repairing organizational credibility often requires replacing management or reorganizing responsibilities. If you choose neither, then publicly delegate responsibility to a new high-visibility subordinate of anyone you choose not to replace.
Be judicious about openness
Many believe that openness prevents rumors. While secrecy does stimulate rumors, openness limits them only if it reduces anxiety. Openness can even make things worse, if it adds to anxiety.
Leave no voids
When people worry, they make up what they don't know. When we say nothing about a topic people are worrying about, we leave a void to be filled by rumors.
Anticipate anxiety
If you know of a probable source of anxiety or worry, get out in front of it. Don't wait for rumors to form. Take mitigating actions early, and make those actions known.

Even if you do all this, remember that you're not in charge of what people worry about. People might still worry — it's their choice. They might not believe you, or they might not hear you. Listen for the rumors and use what you learn to adjust your actions. Go to top Top  Next issue: Feedback Fumbles  Next Issue

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