Rumour and Gossip - 2 August 2012
There’s something quite fascinating about conspiracy theories. Even when people don’t really believe them, there’s a natural curiosity to listen to the stories regardless.
One of the most famous is that the American government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a way of getting support for war. There are also those who still don’t believe the 1969 moon landing ever took place, amassing a stack of evidence to disprove the video footage. And then there are the fans who don’t accept that Elvis ever died, insisting instead that he faked his own death.
There are many more examples. The bigger question is: how do these conspiracy theories begin? The answer can be found in research conducted several years ago at Rutgers University. Psychology professors discovered three main factors that are present whenever conspiracy theories are formed. These are alienation, distrust, and insecurity.
Alienation is when people are isolated, and this disaffection makes them feel as if they’re powerless against ‘the system’. Distrust is when they feel as though they can’t rely on authorities or institutions for support. And insecurity is when they sense they’re at risk of danger. When one or more of those three factors are present in an individual, they start to concoct conspiracy theories as a way of combating the underlying feeling.
Rumour and gossip in the workplace follow a similar trajectory. They’re fuelled whenever alienation, distrust, and insecurity are present. If employees feel alienated from management, or they don’t trust management, or they feel as though their jobs are insecure, it’s natural for them to resort to rumour and gossip as a way of plugging the gaps.
If rumour and gossip are an issue in your workplace, put aside the symptoms and focus instead on the problems:
- To minimise alienation, communicate openly and honestly, listen to what employees have to say, and build genuine relationships with each of them.
- To minimise distrust, stick to your promises and commitments, treat people with respect, and lead by example.
- To minimise insecurity, be upfront and clear about the future, unearth your employees’ expectations, and correct any that are untrue.
There’s another thing that rumour and gossip have in common with conspiracy theories: they all need to be heard – they need an audience. None of them work when individuals keep them to themselves. This makes them a contagious social phenomenon. And that’s why they continue to spread and gather momentum. That is, until you create the type of workplace environment that gives employees decent alternatives to rumour and gossip.
Only then will they realise that Elvis really has left the building.
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