Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 13;   March 26, 2003:

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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Apollo 13 Shoulder PatchFilms Not About Project Teams: I
Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
Gut bacteriaMitigating Outsourcing Risks: I
Outsourcing internal processes modifies the usual risk configuration of those processes, but it also creates a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. What are some of those risks and what can we do about them?
A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempi), ashore, probably to lay eggsSeven Ways to Get Nowhere
Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
Soldiers of IX Engineering Command, U.S. Army Air Force, putting down a Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) Runway at an Advanced Landing Ground under construction somewhere in France following the Normandy Landings of World War IIManagement Debt: I
Management debt, like technical debt, arises when we choose paths — usually the lowest-cost paths — that lead to recurring costs that are typically higher than alternatives. Why do we take on management debt? How can we pay it down?
Elephants fightingHow to Waste Time in Meetings
Nearly everyone hates meetings. The main complaint: they're mostly a waste of time. The main cause: us. Here's a field manual for people who want to waste even more time.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Margay cat (Leopardus wiedii)Coming July 6: Fake Requests for Help
When a colleague asks for assistance, we can feel validated, even flattered. But not all requests for help are what they seem. The more devious amongst us can be endlessly creative in employing requests for help to achieve devious ends. Available here and by RSS on July 6.
A micrometer capable of measuring to |plusmn .01 mmAnd on July 13: What Do We Actually Know?
Precision in both writing and speech can be critical in determining the success of collaborations in the modern workplace. Precision is especially important when we distinguish between what we surmise or assume and what we actually know. Available here and by RSS on July 13.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!