Hey, Did You Hear About…?
“Hey, did you hear about the reorganization that is coming?”
“You’re kidding. Is the chief moving all the lieutenants around again? Did you hear anything specifically about me?”
“Well, I don’t know any details, but something is happening. I’m hearing it from a pretty reliable source.”
These types of informal conversations occur every day in our organizations. Sometimes, the rumors are big; sometimes, they are little. Sometimes, the gossip is based on fact; sometimes, it is pure speculation or opinion. And, while most every squad or unit has one or two gossipmongers (some malicious, some overly nosy), the truth is that we all engage in rumor and gossip at some level. The real issue surrounding these informal communications is their value. Do gossip and rumor hurt our organizations, or do they serve a legitimate purpose?
The downsides are significant. Gossip is a surefire way to spread incorrect information. Even when the content is fairly accurate, it usually is so out of context that the truth still is distorted. Incorrect and incomplete information can cause a variety of problems in an agency, not the least of which is damaged personal and even organizational reputations. Rumors also often cause unnecessary anxiety. Part of the human condition in any change setting is that we first ask ourselves (and often others), “How will this affect me?” That question generally is followed by “What will I lose?” These two questions can work an organization into a frenzy in just a short amount of time. In fact, research has shown that rumor and gossip can demoralize a workforce, waste valuable time, and even weaken productivity.1
My kids have been hearing me say for many years, “Gossip makes you weak!” Yet, I have to be fair and pay gossip and rumor its proper due. Organizations need informal communications for many reasons. We use them to socialize by stirring conversation. We use them to establish buy in on projects and people. We use them to align practice with our organization’s vision, mission, and values. We use informal communications to actually form our organizational cultures. The trick is to determine the motive in our conversations.
To this end, I offer a few suggestions. Self-evaluate every time you sense yourself or others starting to engage in rumor or gossip. If the conversation has no value other than to vent or entertain, then stop. Hold yourself accountable, and hold others accountable as well.
Lead as transparently as possible, and provide as much information to your employees as you can. Gossip and rumor occur most frequently when policies, information, and initiatives are ambiguous. Absent credible information, “employees are likely to engage in…behaviors, such as gossip and rumor, to explain the unexplained.”2
Informal communications are an inherent part of organizational life. They can be harmful or actually add value to an agency. Effective leaders respect the power of these communications and develop strategies to mitigate the bad while leveraging the good. So, did you hear about…?
1 P. Bordia and N. Difonzo, “How Top PR Professionals Handle Hearsay: Corporate Rumors, Their Effects, and Strategies to Manage Them,” Public Relations Review 26, no. 2 (2000): 173-190.
2 R. Houmanfar and R. Johnson, “Gossip and Rumor in Organizations: A Brief Overview”; retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.obmnetwork.com/consulting/tips/ houmanfar_gossip/
Dr. Jeff Green, chief of the FBI Leadership Development Institute, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.