The curse of the rumour mill

Can gossip ever prove useful and productive? Pierre Casse and Natalia Ionova offer a perspective

“Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” Oscar Wilde
The rumour mill refers to any situation in which a number of people spread rumours about something. It’s often referred to as gossiping and more often than not results in unfounded pieces of information regarding a situation, people, events or any circumstance. Rumours can arise spontaneously from interactions between people and, like the popular conversation game, Chinese Whispers, they often become distorted as they pass around from person to person. In this sense they have an emergent characteristic and can prove difficult to control. Of course, they can also arise as a result of someone’s intention to manipulate a social environment by influencing people’s attitudes and behaviours. 
Everybody has an innate attraction to rumour mongering. As highly social animals, we human beings feed off information circulating around us. We need to feel in touch with what is happening in our environment and try to anticipate the implications for ourselves and our own personal interests. In the working environment, where we are part of an organisational context, we look to the organisation for information and updates but if we don’t get what we need in a more formal manner, we often create our own flow of information in a more informal, haphazard way. In other words, we activate the rumour mill. 
The phenomenon of the rumour mill is an important issue for leadership because people tend to pay attention to the information which is circulating behind the scenes and often it can prove unhealthy and disruptive to the effective functioning of the organisation as a whole. Often too, rumours circulating do not provide an accurate picture of reality, yet people are often convinced that they do.
The rumours circulating around the organisation reflect the fundamental interests people have when working together. For instance:
  • Who is in trouble in the organisation?
Corporate leaders, especially those who are highly ambitious, want to know what people they need to be careful of or avoid because they have the potential to negatively impact their careers in the organisation. They need to carefully protect their reputations and image in the organisation so they listen to the rumours circulating and identify potential threats to their progress up the corporate ladder. 
  • What happened to that corporate star?
Some people need to know how the top performers are treated across the organisation. From this they can identify what is required for advancement. In this sense, the rumour mill provides people with information as to performance standards and expectations so that they can plan their careers accordingly.
Who is close to whom?
  • People like to know who is meeting with whom and what alliances exist in the social context. This is crucial information in identifying where the various interests lie and who are the power brokers. 
Indeed, it can prove critical for leaders in deciding where they should place their allegiance. Sometimes this may go as far as paying particular attention to rumours regarding the intimate relationships that may arise between co-workers. 
The various sides of the rumour
“No one gossips about other people’s virtues.” 
Bertrand Russell
The telling side
People enjoy telling stories and spreading rumours for several reasons including to:
  • Get other people’s attention (“Listen to me…”)
  • Influence other people and impact their behaviours (“Be careful. This is what’s happening…”)
  • Feel important (“I am the centre of attention”)
  • Impress people ( “I know something that you do not know”)
  • Harm other people (“Something is wrong with that person…”)
  • Fight boredom (“Now, something exciting is happening”)
  • Help other people (“You are not the only one in trouble”).
The listening side
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Oscar Wilde
People listen to the gossips because they care about:
  • Being informed before all the other people
  • Playing a role in the spreading of news
  • Sharing secrets
  • Being trusted with ‘confidential’ information
  • Having something to say to friends and relatives
  • Not feeling left out
  • Being creative in embellishing the stories.
Needless to say that rumours can prove very destructive!
The dark side
Rumours can prove destructive if they are based on lies and aim at harming people, inflicting pain and ultimately, creating a toxic, sick environment. The main characteristics of the negative 
rumour include:
  • Demotivating of people
  • Creating internal tension and conflicts
  • Destroying the positive spirit in the organisation and creating problems with morale
  • Decreasing or misusing the energy in the human system
  • Disorienting teams by fostering internal battles
  • Destroying leadership credibility
  • Promoting unethical standards of behaviour.
The bright side
Strangely enough, some rumours can also be quite justified and beneficial to the organisation and its members. On the bright side, the benefits 
can include:
  • Accelerating the sharing of information
  • Providing a means of informal communication when it is too premature for leaders to formally commit themselves
  • Keeping people on their toes and ready to move
  • Spreading good news which leaders can conform at the appropriate time
  • Meeting a need from people to know what’s happening
  • Creating some healthy tension between teams
  • Highlighting good standards of performance.
On the bright side, a rumour can also play the role of a fuse within the organisation. Its existence can prevent the escalation of conflicts and more destructive behaviours among the people who work together. Rumours can sometimes act as an ‘invisible hand’ in a social environment.
Can leaders manage the rumour mill?
“Bad news has good legs.” Richard Llewellyn
Can organisational leaders control the rumour mill so that rumours emanating from it do not prove destructive? In trying to address this question, it is worth considering that there are three categories of people affected by the rumour mill, namely, the victims, the beneficiaries and the initiators.
The victims
Those people who suffer from unfounded rumours must know how to limit their potential damage. To do so, they can anticipate the rumours by paying attention to related signals such as people avoiding them, not returning their calls or not inviting them to meetings. They need to measure the potential damage of the rumours and carefully consider how they should respond. Then take preventive action to limit the negative consequences of the rumour and focus on trying to turn it to their advantage.
The beneficiaries
Those who can take advantage of the rumours should keep an eye on who is the initiator? Are people going to believe that I may have initiated it to serve my own interests? Spot the signs early in the spreading of the rumour so that I get some advance notice and prepare myself and maximise the return on the rumour which I did not initiate
The initiators
Those who are at the origin of the gossips should know what they are doing and be aware of the potential consequence of what they are doing (including some boomerang effect for themselves). They should make sure that their actions are not unfair and unethical.
A case study on rumours
John Deltaer works for the DALTRA Company, a pharmaceutical multinational. He has been very happy since his move to the HR department in January 2015. Following five years in the field, he decided it was time to return home and get more involved in the people side of the organisation. He was used to saying: “People are what counts but at DALTRA, we don’t pay enough attention to them.”
    John also believed that despite his focus on the need for timely, good results, his impatience with people, and his lack of training in HR, nevertheless he could indeed contribute and make a difference.
    He had been in his new HR role for a couple of months, when suddenly he was hit by a totally unexpected event. On the 10th March, 2015 he got a call from his HR VP who wanted to see him right away. The VP was obviously upset and said to him: “I understand that two weeks ago on your way to our Annual Executive Conference, you shared a taxi with some senior executives and that you told them that our senior VP of operations was in trouble and would soon be moved to another position. Why did you say that? Do you realise the impact that such nonsense can have on the VP in question and many others? Have you lost it? Why on earth did you say that when you know it’s not true?”
    John was shocked and replied: “I never said that. I just mentioned that I had heard something about the VP but I didn’t say anything further.”
    The VP HR was unconvinced. He said: “Do you realise the consequences of such unprofessional behaviour? People have started to talk, the VP of operations is livid and he is blaming me for the fallout. The CEO has demanded I give him an explanation as to what the hell we think we are trying to do in HR!”
    John was aghast. He had no idea what the VP HR was on about. But one thing was clear, he didn’t feel comfortable. He replied: “I’m totally lost. Nobody said anything to me. It was just small talk in the back of a taxi and I never actually said the VP of operations was going anywhere.” 
The VP HR could see that John had made a naïve mistake but the issue was what they should, or could, do about it. He tried to make it clear: “Are you aware that as a HR manager you must be very careful with such statements? The rumour is circulating and the bottom line is that the credibility of the HR department is at stake. So, John, my challenge for you is: How are you going to control it?” 
    John looked petrified, gulped with anxiety, and sank uneasily into the chair in front of his 
boss’s desk!
Questions for the reader
To conclude, we would like you, the reader, to reflect on three simple questions:
1. Why did John share that information with the other executives?
2. Assuming that you are the VP for operations, how would you have reacted to the rumour?
3. What do you think John can do to control the rumour and offset the potential damage? 


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