When the rumor mill gets going, it always seems to come up with stuff that is as negative as it possibly could be. I have been speechless at times as a business leader has shared with me the rumors that are circulating about their organization. The amazing thing is that these unfounded rumors always seem to be much worse than any fictional story I could make up. Furthermore, these destructive rumors have surprising credibility and staying power even though they often have little or no factual basis.
During times when the business or organization is going through difficult situations, people seem to be even more inclined than normal to think the worst is going to happen. If you haven’t experienced it already, it is just a matter of time until you find out from the rumor mill that you have cut healthcare benefits or that you are planning a staff reduction.
Of course, sometimes the bad leadership of those in charge of the organization provides fertile ground for such rumors. Several years ago, I worked for an organization whose board made the most bizarre decisions. As a result, it was not unusual for outlandish rumors to sprout up each month around the time of the monthly board meeting.
As you investigate the cause of rumors, ask yourself as a leader if you are doing anything that provides impetus to rumors. Are people in the organization getting mixed signals from leadership? For example, are you handing out salary increases to the favored few while telling the rest of the organization that there will be no raises due to lack of money?
It is important that you maintain an environment where rumors—about internal or external events or actions that could affect your business—do not have a fertile ground in which to grow. This means that you need to make sure that you and your management team are providing consistent and intentional communication about internal and external issues that affect the organization.
So what do you do when destructive rumors and incorrect information start spreading around your organization?
First, let me comment on what you should not do. Do not embark on a mission to identify and punish the individual who started the rumor or who you think is responsible for the inaccurate information. As much as you may want to hold them accountable, approaching the problem in this manner will not help.
The exception would be if you have an individual in your business who is frequently starting and spreading rumors. In this case, you should probably take the time to address this issue with them directly. Warn them that if they persist in starting rumors in the future, they will need to look elsewhere for employment.
So what should you do to create an environment and a culture that minimizes rumors?
First of all, when you learn that there is incorrect information in your organization, meet with one or two of your people who are likely “in the know,” and compare notes so that you have a clear understanding of the issue. If necessary, ask one or two others who may have more information about the rumors to tell you what they know. At this point, don’t try to correct the rumor. Instead, focus on getting a complete understanding of what is being said in your organization. Take enough time to make sure you have the whole story and know what information has been circulated. However, don’t dawdle. Rumors need to be dealt with quickly – in a matter of days, not weeks.
Once you understand the situation, meet with your key people and prepare a communication that shows that the rumor is incorrect and also tells people what is actually going on. Unless there is a true need for secrecy (due to privacy issues on personnel matters, for example), share as much information as you possibly can to get the correct information into the minds of your employees. If your team perceives that you are holding out on them, they are less likely to believe the truth.
Long term, adopt a policy of communicating openly and frequently about what is going on in your organization. Unless there is a true competitive need to keep information away from employees, err on the side of having more open communication versus less open.
As you become more pro-active in your internal communications, it is important to involve your management team or key employees. Make a special effort to be sure they know what is going on. When change is needed, include them in the process as early as possible and encourage them to bring questions to you. Preview organizational communications with these key people to make sure that you are being clear in your messaging.
With regard to the rest of your employees, depending on the size of your organization, consider having lunch meetings or develop other venues where you can meet informally with your employees to share what is going on. Invite them to ask questions and also to share with you any issues or difficulties that they are experiencing.
If you get in the habit of telling people what is going on, and you answer questions openly and frequently, you will build a culture of communication. You will create an internal communication process that encourages them to talk to you when they hear incorrect information. When they come to you for clarification, you can quickly correct the misinformation and get everyone focused back on the important priorities of your business instead of being distracted by the rumor of the day.