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How to control the rumor mill

Frank Blecha
Frank Blecha
4 min read
How to control the rumor mill

Table of Contents

I live in a small town not that far from Denver, Colorado. We're about 7,300 feet in elevation and surrounded by pine trees. Part of living in this environment is performing constant wildfire mitigation. For people who don't deal with wildfires, they're something to both fear and behold. We've been close enough to one before that we could see the pilots of the planes making slurry (the red fire retardant substance they drop on fires) runs during one of the fires nearby. I'd never expected my house to survive a full-on, nature's wrath fire. At that point, it's up to luck, weather, and the firefighters working the fire. However, I can do my part to make sure it's hard to start a fire around here, that if a small one starts, there's a chance to put it out before it expands, and that the available fuels nearby pruned in such a way that it can't quickly spread.

Fire spreads through a laddering system - first, a small patch catches on fire (e.g., an errant cigarette or careless fire) that expands into nearby small grasses. Then it climbs up the nearest set of trees - around here, that would be something like a scrub oak that can grow from a foot to 20 feet in height. From there, it climbs to the pines and becomes a canopy fire, racing from top to top. At that point, it's a full-on forest fire and will be hard to put out. So much of the defense is on limiting the initial fuels for the fire, making it hard to spread. For example, we'll trim all the limbs on the pines to be "head height" (call it at least six feet) so there aren't any easy limbs to climb. We'll trim the grasses in the area to 3-4 inches, making it harder for them to fuel. We have removed any tree within 30 feet of a house, as that's too close from a canopy perspective. If folks have wood-burning fireplaces, all firewood outside is stacked away from the house and the trees (e.g., in a clearing).

What does this have to do with rumor control?

You need to remove the fires that can feed a rumor. What are those fuels? Uncertainty, lack of communication, lack of expectation, lack of manager confidence, and management actions without explanation.

Management actions without explanation.

When you can't understand and trust your manager, it creates an accessible environment to fuel spreading rumors. People will guess, extrapolate, interpolate, or make up wild claims that may explain management actions. There are several surefire ways to start rumors:

  • fire someone, but don't explain why
  • Hire someone, but don't explain why or what their roles are
  • Transfer someone in or out of the team without explaining why
  • Leave the team (manager takes an internal transfer) but not explain why

The root of all of those is a manager not explaining the why for the actions. People want to know the why because they can use that to determine the organization's direction and, more specifically, how this will impact them.

Lack of expectation

Not having a clear expectation explained to them by their manager makes people make assumptions. Incorrect assumptions can be at the start of a rumor getting out of control. For example, some firms end all of their contractor staffing at the end of the year, with no general broadcast about it. It was likely not a termination but the end of a contract and the natural stopping point for the contractor. They would always leave at the end of December, but the team didn't know. Not knowing that means they may assume the project is in danger. If they think the project is in danger, they take action with that assumption - for example, asking if another team is hiring. A person on that team doesn't know what's going on, so they assume that the project is in danger, and they tell other people they work with (in a different department), and now you've got a full-fledged rumor.

How do you stop an expectation rumor?

Remove the easy fuels

Rumors feed on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It's easy to stoke a rumor when those fuels exist and propagate. It's hard to start a rumor when managers try to remove those fuels. So how do you do that?

Fear - build an authentic relationship with your team. You gain trust by demonstrating that you're trustworthy. Many of the items we talk about in this book are there to help build up a trusting relationship. It would help to use those relationships when facing a fear (job loss, financial strain, etc.). Also, see the section on confidence in the face of fear.

Uncertainty - tell your team what you know and can share. As part of any manager's job, there will be things that you'll know but can't say to your employees (compensation, acquisitions, anything under an NDA, etc.). But many managers play a game of "I've got a secret" to enforce positional authority. They need to realize that they're sowing the seeds of their destruction with those games. Uncertain people will take action to get more certainty - either changing to another team or another unit or leaving the firm for a job that has "more stability." Tell them what you can share, but you can also tell them there are things you won't be able to share. But that number is almost always lower than folks expect.

Doubt - the close cousin of uncertainty, doubt is a negative magnifier. If you have doubts about your manager, you won't ask them for clarification. Managers remove doubt by building a long-term track record for consistent behavior. I know which way Riley will decide because they always jump this way and have a lot of power in this scenario. The manager who's been treating their team fairly for a long time keeps them in the know and tells them what they think is coming, has removed or diminished any number of doubts that could spring up in a team.

Maintain the area around you

But you can't remove the fuels for rumor just once; you'll need to patrol for them in your organization constantly. Reduce the ability for fire to climb by removing ladder fuels. In teams, this means providing information about what's going on in the firm and what's on the horizon for the team and generally trying to be as informative as possible.

If you reduce the fuel and constantly patrol, looking for a whiff of smoke, you will dramatically reduce rumor mills in your team. Fewer rumors lead to more stability, which leads to consistent delivery in the long run.