We are social animals.  We like to talk to one another. It's how we learn and interact. In fact, we craft stories, and repeat them, as a means of educating and enlightening others. Without a doubt, using the  spoken word to elucidate is, quite simply, part of the human condition.

However, there is a dark side that comes with this innate ability. It manifests itself everyday across corporate America. It is the formulation and circulation of the rumor.

It seems that in a work setting where an authoritative and definitive source of information is lacking, any "dot" can (and will) be connected. It's just what we do. The vacuum created by a lack of details concerning and impending or currently unfolding event will be filled with all sorts of unverified data, inaccurate assumptions and far-out conclusions by those in and around the effected workplace.

Regrettably, the rumor mill can be so powerful that it can bring a business and it's top leadership to their respective knees. Consider the oft quoted case of Ron Johnson, and his tenure as CEO at JCPenney, as an example.

Ron Johnson took the helm at JCPenney in November of 2011. Sensing complacency within the workforce, he wanted to transform the retailer. So, he and his management team developed a vision that called for a total transformation of the department store giant, one that would attract a younger, hipper crowd.

Unfortunately, Johnson and his team did not communicate the needed changes very well to JCPenney's middle managers. Consequently, rumors of sweeping change engulfed the retailer.  Personnel, from store managers on down to sales associates working on the floor, began to panic. 

All of this dread and concern translated into dismal performance at the retailer. Workers became spooked, service diminished and customers left in droves. So, it is no surprise that the stock price went down an eye popping 46 percent in 2012. In April 2013, Mike Ullman, the department store's previous chief executive, replaced Johnson.

Johnson's story helps to illustrate the destructive powers of the rumor mill. Had he and his team done a better job of filling in the information void and engaged the lower echelons of the company in the process of transforming the business, they may have been successful. Nevertheless, that didn't happen, the stock tanked and Johnson was ousted.

Clearly, it's in your best interest to do all that you can to halt production at the rumor mill. Here are five ideas that will help you quell your team's urges to fill the information void vacuum.

Make transparency an expectation.

Let your team know that you expect them to communicate with their people in an open and transparent way. Discourage secret keeping and let them know that any company sensitive information that you share with them will be clearly characterized as such, so they will have no need to be worried about the risk of inadvertently exposing the crown jewels.

Provide the "why."

Don't forget to always provide the "why" behind your messaging. Your team must understand the intent and expected outcomes of the information that you're communicating to them. Sometimes we forget to share the "why" and that opens the door for more unnecessary speculation, which can fuel the rumor mill.

Keep it simple.

Work to keep your messaging clear and to the point. There is no need to overcomplicate ideas with flowery language and the provision of inconsequential facts that may only serve to confuse and frustrate your team. We want people to understand the motivation so that they can communicate the message down into the organization.

Charge them to drive it down.

Staff builds confidence in leadership when information is shared in an unfiltered and open way. Confidence in leadership stops rumors in its tracks. Be sure that your team is actively communicating with staff all the time. Don't let information get stuck in the clay layer of your leadership pyramid-- that creates the vacuum that spawns misinformation.

Be the example. 

Open and honest communication starts with you. Become the example needed for others to follow. Be accessible to your people and be willing to listen to opposing points of view. If you do that, you'll inspire trust and staff will be less likely to feed the need to exaggerate through gossiping and tale telling.

If information is power, the lack of it can be a killer to your business. Stop fueling the rumor mill by using these tips. Each is intended to help you to provide your people with the information that they need to feel confident and secure in your leadership and to soothe the need for your people to start rumors to fill information gaps. They will shutter your rumor mill once, and for all.

Published on: Sep 17, 2019
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