Are Rumor Mills Really Bad for Change?


I once worked on a change project for a mid-size company. The project had been going on for quite awhile before I was brought on board (but that’s another blog post for another day) and as such, didn’t have much of a handle on the rumors that were flying around the company. It was one of the first things I was asked to manage. The leadership thought they were a distraction.

I had a different idea. Sometimes rumors can help socialize changes by allowing the certain aspects of the change to be ‘outed’, seemingly by chance. It gives people time to get used to that aspect well before the company is ready to officially make a statement. Time is the key element. And as long as the ‘rumor’ is essentially true, it might actually help in the long run rather than hurt.

I have written in the past about using the rumor mill to your advantage in times of change. Even though this particular instance wasn’t planned, I felt the company could now build on it and move forward. How a company responds to rumors is critical. As they Michael Douglas says in the movie The American President, the important thing is NOT to panic.

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  1. Don’t Panic. Really. Even if the rumor is hurting your company in some way, the important thing is to remain calm and create a plan on how the rumor fits in with your overall communication strategy. Don’t do anything rash but if your strategy is to ‘set the record straight’, don’t take too long in doing that. Just don’t do anything in haste sacrificing strategy.
  2. Involve Leaders. In my example, the rumor was actually pretty on target – new hires would take priority in having a cubicle or office over consultants. Consultants would need to start ‘hoteling’ to make room for permanent employees. Leaders were taken aback because all of a sudden it seemed that employees knew more than they did. Employees didn’t really have more information and a quick memo and subsequent in-depth briefing remedied any perceived gaps.
    In this case, I would have liked to have had the memo and briefing earlier in the process. That is a lesson learned for the project team who didn’t want to say anything until all the t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted. Which brings me to my next point.
  3. Don’t Wait, Communicate. This project team, as with so many that I’ve worked with over the years, made decisions about what is confidential and what isn’t that didn’t work in their favor. It was common knowledge that the current site wasn’t big enough to hold all the new hires planned for the coming year, yet the team didn’t want to say anything about interim plans until they were finalized. I understand it, and maybe what I’m recommending is counter-intuitive, but I would really challenge you to think about what needs to be confidential and what doesn’t. In my example, since it was pretty apparent to all employees that space was going to be a challenge, it would have been more prudent to start out with the following sequence of communications:
    Communication 1. we know we are going to be in this space for another six months, we know we are hiring a lot more people in that timeframe, we know we have some space challenges and we are working on several different scenarios – we’ll let you know what we decide as soon as we decide it.
    Communication 2. we have decided to reconfigure the current space to fit in more people, we are giving priority to permanent employees vs. consultants, permanent employees will have cubicle or office, consultants will have designated hoteling spaces, permanent employees that travel frequently may be asked to share offices with another who also travels frequently.
    Communication 3. work is beginning on the reconfiguration of space, if this affects you specifically your manager will notify you, even though this is temporary we know this might cause you disruption and we apologize for that, we appreciate everyone’s flexibility as we reconfigure the site to make way for new employees. [/message][su_spacer]

I also recommend that these communications are done verbally so that any questions can be answered on the spot. There is nothing more off-putting than a cold memo telling you that your work-space is about to be disrupted.

If it is ALL people are doing, then clearly it is a problem. But if it is “just some buzz”, and the “buzz” is true – use it to your advantage. One thing I have found is that it is pretty hard to get out in front of a well-oiled rumor machine. So to use an old cliché – if you can’t beat’em, join’em.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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