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When it comes to managing the rumour mill, partial information is better than no information

rumour millThe ancient philosopher Aristotle said Horror vacui, or “Nature abhors a vacuum.” His point was that if a vacuum exists in the physical world, it is only momentary, as it immediately fills with the material surrounding it, without any regard as to what the substance is.  It doesn’t matter if the neighbouring material is similar, or of the needed quality, or even if it is suitable for the purpose, it immediately moves to fill the vacuum.  The same principle is at work in organizations, specifically to do with communication and more specifically, the organization’s rumour mill.  In fact, I wrote about using the company grapevine to your advantage in one of my regular columns in The Globe and Mail, back in March 2015!

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, people in organizations also abhor vacuums … in information. When there is a lack of knowledge – about people, about processes, about upcoming plans and changes – information, accurate or not, immediately moves in to fill the vacuum.  And ironically, the larger the vacuum, the more incorrect and outlandish is what moves in to fill it.

Managing the rumour mill

Which leads me to the point of this article.  The best way to combat rumours, misinformation, and the general distortions and fabrications that seem to take hold in just about every organization is to continually and deliberately offer correct, quality information to fill the void.  Even if it is incomplete!  The workplace reality is that truthful information that is partial is better than no information at all.  And it is a leader’s job to thoughtfully and frequently disseminate it.

Managers often have a bias towards withholding information until it is “finalized”.  With the best of intentions (to provide accurate complete information), they wait.  But that is a very bad idea!  Because once rumours and misinformation take root, they grow rapidly, and then it takes a mammoth effort to stem the tide.  The focus has to shift to damage control (which is a lot more work) rather than disseminating factual data.

Which is a pity, considering that there is a better way to manage the entire process.  As a leader, it is far better to share what you know, frequently, each time explaining that it is subject to change, than to wait until all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.  Tell people what you know, even if it is preliminary or imperfect.  Employees are far more capable of accepting “subject to revision” than most managers give them credit for.

Well, what have been your experiences?  Are you in an organization where lack of information fuels a rumour mill that spirals downwards?  Or are you fortunate to be part of a system where plans, updates, and results are regularly shared with all employees?  I’d love to hear about what you’re seeing and hearing.  Please comment below.

4 thoughts on “When it comes to managing the rumour mill, partial information is better than no information

  1. I remember working in a larger office where the rumors were RAMPANT and when I asked management to speak to what was really going on they wouldn’t. If only they had provided some clarity it would have stopped the rumours (and fear). Instead they believed that rumours would always be there and people should just ignore them. How wrong they were.

    There is something to be said, though, for properly worded partial information as sometimes that can lead to more rumours.

    1. True Trish, partial information can lead to more rumours. But it’s been my experience that those rumours tend to be at least a little more grounded in fact than the ones that are created in the complete absence of information. Plus, I’ve also noticed that there are usually a couple of diehards in every organization who will spread rumours no matter how much information you share. But if management has at least attempted to communicate, the other (majority) of employees usually push back against the minority diehards. You’re right though, there is no perfect solution!

  2. Merge, you’re correct. Communicating often and early is a far better strategy than waiting for the perfect time, place or event to provide others with news. Information is rarely perfect; communicate the best information that is available and provide updates with new information is appropriate. If there is concern with regard to the accuracy of information, check sources. Be brief and stick to the facts.

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