Responding to Rumors
by Rick Brenner
Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
Our first reactions to false, damaging rumors about ourselves are often defensiveness, anger, or even counterattack. Most of these responses are ineffective. We make more constructive choices when we understand rumor dynamics.
- Rumors can become more damaging with age
- As rumors propagate, they evolve, because each of us applies our own filters to what we see, hear, and remember, and some of us give rumors a little spin as we move them along.
- Respond quickly. Waiting just gives the rumor time to spread and to evolve. Don't be concerned that your response might add to the spread of the rumor, because the rumor spreads on its own anyway.
- Most rumors are credible
- When a rumor spreads, it's probably credible, because people are more likely to retell rumors that they themselves believe. The credibility of a rumor depends not on the sources of the information, but on how well the rumor fits with prejudices, stereotypes, or widely held images. For example, a rumor about a workplace love affair spreads more rapidly if the couple is known to travel together or lunch together.
- To respond, begin by identifying the elements that make the rumor credible. Since the rumor's credibility in part derives from your own behavior, change your behavior.
- Packaged rumors spread more rapidly
- We respond to rumors
when we understand
- A rumor's "packaging" usually appears as a preamble: "You can't repeat this or tell anyone I told you." We feel a little safer retelling a packaged rumor because we have assurances that the trace path will exclude us. Packaging speeds propagation.
- If you hear a packaged rumor, assume that it has spread everywhere. Don't waste time trying to trace it to a source. You can probably guess the source anyway.
- Quelling a rumor is very difficult
- Nobody controls where a rumor travels or how fast. Controlling a rumor that's already circulating is impossible — once a rumor is loose, it circulates on its own, possibly indefinitely.
- Instead of trying to control a rumor, figure out how to get the truth to circulate just as fast as the rumor. Rely on respected third parties to circulate independently verifiable factual information that directly contradicts as much of the rumor as possible.
- Respond constructively
- If you become defensive, depressed, or irate, your behavior will seem to confirm the rumor — you will seem to have been caught in the act.
- Acknowledge the existence of the rumor, and address it seriously. Remember always that the people who believe the rumor might feel criticized if you dismiss it as transparently false.
You'll do much better when you can maintain your self-esteem. Make it your first priority — hang on with all your might to the belief that you're a fine person. When you believe in yourself, anything else you do is more likely to succeed. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- The Fallacy of the False Cause
- Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.
- Managing Hindsight Bias Risk
- Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
- So You Want the Bullying to End: Part II
- If you're the target of a workplace bully, ending the bullying can be an elusive goal. Here are some guidelines for tactics to bring it to a close.
- Not Really Part of the Team: Part II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Changing Blaming Cultures
- Culture change in organizations is always challenging, but changing a blaming culture presents special difficulties. Here are three reasons why.
See also Emotions at Work and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 14: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part II
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- And on October 21: Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking. Available here and by RSS on October 21.
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