Defeating the rumor mill: Proactive communication helps avoid damage of water cooler chatter

Idle water cooler chit chat can cause real damage to a small business. (Flickr photo by Daquella Manera. Creative Commons license.)

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. Any small business owner who things he/she can stifle the company rumor mill during times of change is badly mistaken. Even in good times, employees love to chitchat about internal matters. I mean, have you watched “The Office?”

More often than not, much of what is shared is speculation, not fact. If someone knows facts A and B, they will quickly put them together and decide that C is the obvious outcome, even when ownership has not decided whether C, D or E is the answer or has actually eliminated C from the list of possibilities.

When change is afoot, even if that change will be positive, the water cooler talk heats up even more. After all, very few people like change and a large portion will be pessimistic and assume that any change will be for the worse. Staff moral and productivity can suffer when people are distressed by rumors. In dramatic cases, where the rumor is that the company is in trouble, some employees may even decide to defect because they’d rather be the first out the door than the last. And when this gossip goes outside the company to vendors or customers, things can get really bad.

So what are you to do to defeat the rumor mill? Here’s my take on what you need to know and do:

1.  Understand that secrets cannot be kept for long in a work environment. Even if you tell absolutely no one else in the company what you’re thinking of doing, people will still gather little clues and begin to speculate. Is your lawyer or your accountant showing up at your office more than usual? Are you suddenly going out to lots of meetings and not saying who you’re meeting with? Is your executive assistant fielding calls about these meetings and trying to figure out who these new people are? Are you showing signs of obvious signs of stress and exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior, like blowing up at someone in a meeting? Slowly but surely, people pick up hints here and there and the speculation starts.

If you’ve taken a couple of people into your confidence and sworn them to absolutely secrecy, things still have a way of leaking out. People just can’t help themselves from dropping little hints here and there to show that they are “in the know.” So don’t think you can keep the lid on things for very long, which brings us to point 2.

2. Move as quickly as possible. Don’t get caught up in analysis paralysis about the changes you’re contemplating because while you do that, the negative impact of the rumor mill can do serious damage to your business, especially if the rumors leak outside the company. While you’re trying to dot every I and cross every T, your business could be slowly sinking. Also, the longer you dither over every last detail of the change you’re contemplating, the longer your eye is off the ball of running your business.

3. Be proactive rather than reactive in your communications. Communicating about the need for change before the rumors start can mitigate rumor mill damage. Rather than letting people speculate, which rarely produces accurate or positive information, be as transparent as possible about what’s really going on.

By bringing people into the process instead of keeping them shut out, you may even find that they can help you make a better decision in the end. For example, if cost cutting is in order, your employees may very well have ideas on how this could be done that you may not have thought of, ideas that may enable you to cut costs without cutting jobs.

4. Once decisions are made, communicate them thoroughly and repeatedly. Don’t expect that you can hold one company meeting and everyone will magically get on board with your new plan. People need time to adjust to change and they need as much information as possible to help them make that adjustment. Let them in on the thinking behind the change you’re demanding. This is perhaps more true now than ever before. Past generations of workers were more apt to just go along with what the boss says. Not so for today’s younger workers. They want to know why things have to change and they want a voice in that change to the extent possible. So thoroughly and repeatedly communicating your new plan and giving people the opportunity to participate in deciding how to implement it will go a long way toward minimizing grumbling and resistance.

5. Keep alert for signs of rumor mill damage. Even when you’re not contemplating major changes, the rumor mill can still be churning up alarming gossip. Are people asking you questions that don’t really make sense in view of the company’s over all condition? Does something seem wrong about the mood at meetings? Does there seem to be a lot of whispering going on? Any or all of these things may indicate that a disturbing rumor is going around that needs to be addressed and addressed quickly. Start asking your own questions to uncover what’s happening and set the record straight as soon as possible.

People will be people, which means you can never totally defeat the rumor mill. But by being proactive and inclusive you can keep the damage done by company gossip to a minimum.

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