High on the workplace dysfunction meter: An active, fear-based rumor mill

(image courtesy of clker.com)

(image courtesy of clker.com)

If fearful, dramatic rumors continually run through a workplace — some turning out to be true, others not — then I’m willing to bet that its organizational leadership does a poor job of communicating with its stakeholders and that the organizational culture lacks a core value of trust. If these rumors become increasingly wild, with some still proving to be correct, then the workplace dysfunction meter is stuck clearly in the red zone.

Content-wise, these rumors usually center on concerns that are important to just about anyone: Job security, compensation, benefits, leadership and ownership changes, organizational conflicts, work rules, and the like. A meeting, a cryptic memo, or even a casual conversation or e-mail can stoke the rumor mill and fuel a modern version of the “telephone” game, whereby speculation creates a narrative built upon tiny bits of fact.

The smart prognosticators are like expert military intelligence experts. They can take small pieces of information and be remarkably accurate at assessing a situation and forecasting coming events. Others may be not be so wise. As they feed the rumor mill, it starts to go bonkers. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes.

Responses and impacts

Individual responses to fearful rumors are often physiological. As I wrote earlier this year:

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Ultimately, from an organizational standpoint, morale, loyalty, and productivity are the major casualties.


It may be tempting to blame rank-and-file workers for engaging in such communications. And certainly there are workers who revel in spreading rumors of any sort. Once a rumor mill goes active, it’s hard to stop.

For the most part, however, if a rumor mill operates to the point of distraction, then poor leadership is typically a major culprit. After all, when boards and senior executives pay only lip service to communication, transparency, and honesty, then what is likely to fill the information void?

2 responses

  1. What appears to be innocent workplace gossip can become quite insidious. I admit that I have been part of the problem by being an active player in the rumor mill and by idly standing by while it was happening in a destructive manner. Now I just say that I will not hear it or disengage and I keep my distance from people who relish in spreading rumors.

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