“Trying to squash a rumor is like trying to unring a bell.” –Shana Alexander
I remember thinking as a young teenager that I couldn’t wait until I was an adult so that I didn’t live in a world of rumors. At that time I believed rumors were the worst part of the teenage years; they were the impetus for unwanted stress, heartache, and anger.
What I know as an adult is that we live in a world that fixates on the unknown. Rumors are just part of life.
We are creatures where in a situation in which we don’t know the reality, we will often substitute speculation for the truth. It’s one thing to hypothesize what you believe about a particular situation, reflecting on your own what you believe might be the truth. This is done alone. This is done without involving anyone else. If we stopped right there and never uttered our speculations to anyone else, I don’t think there would be as many rumor mill issues in the workplace.
But we don’t stop. That’s not our nature.
“Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” –Liz Smith
One of the hardest, and time-consuming, parts of leadership is chasing down the truth. In my current role, I often find myself sifting through bundles of information to find the reality in a situation. I have been burned a few times with being too reactionary to information I picked up as hearsay, because I took the person telling me the information as the source rather than the messenger. Distinguishing between the source and the messenger is a key element that often gets overlooked, and if I’m not careful, I fall prey to it. So what do I typically do when I hear a rumor in my workplace? I do two specific things (and it isn’t rocket science).
- I try not to get too emotional. Getting mad, sad, angry, happy, or hurt doesn’t get me anywhere if I am not even sure of the truth. I have to remind myself to keep a level head and confirm what I heard before having any sort of reaction. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t hard to do. We are human creatures. Emotional beings. It is our nature to want to immediately react. I have to constantly remind myself that unless I am hearing something from the source, I don’t really know if it is true. This is toughest to do in the heat of the moment, when you have dozens of things to do, work has piled up on your desk, e-mail inbox full, and you have 3 people outside your door waiting to speak with you. Yet, I know I have to do it.
- How do I confirm what I heard is the truth? The first thing I do is determine whether or not I am speaking with the source or a messenger. If I find out that my source was really just a messenger, I continue searching until I find the source. Once I find the source of the information, I look to them to provide me with the truth. Sometimes it is completely opposite from what I heard, other times it is the truth. Either way, I can better assess a situation when I am acting on facts rather than hearsay.
We create so much unnecessary stress for ourselves by perpetuating rumors in an organization. Too much of this creates an overall culture of mistrust and uneasiness, and in most cases, we fail to retain our best people. I don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning and wants to go to work in a toxic culture. I think our challenge as leaders is to maintain a cool head and look for the truth before reacting to anything, and then once we know the truth work to make sure we communicate that truth to the masses.