The 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.