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Weathering a Storm of Rumors

Wonder: Verb. To be affected with surprise, curiosity, or doubt; to wait with uncertain expectation; to question or speculate.

A recent Associated Press article reported that rumors are blowing through Florida in the wake of unrelenting hurricanes. One rumor accuses the government of stockpiling bodies, stacking them in refrigerated semi trailers. As hurricane Ivan approached, another rumor had fleeing residents hurrying to beat pending gas-rationing limits. Rumor expert Gary Fine of Northwestern University says, "Natural disasters are a major incubator for rumors. In the midst of things, people are looking for any kind of information about what's going to happen next."

In times of ambiguity, people seek stability, even if that means inventing their own explanations. It's the same in the workplace; rumors start when employees are left to wonder.

Researchers describe three primary types of rumors. Pipe dreams forecast great things on the horizon. Also called wish-fulfillment rumors, these predictions convey the desires and hopes of the employees who spread them. "I hear the raises will be bigger this year," or "Word is the boss is getting fired."

Anxiety rumors express the fears of employees. Common in times of transition, anxiety rumors provide employees an avenue for sharing their concerns with others. "I understand the merger will result in massive lay-offs."

Aggressive rumors--known as wedge-drivers--are triggered by bitterness. The purpose is to discredit or demean an individual or the organization. "She only got the promotion because she's a woman."

Whether inspired by hope, fear, or anger, rumors originate when employees perceive their expectations will go unmet. For instance, an individual counting on job security may spread a rumor about lay-offs; in reaching out to coworkers this way, the employee is searching for reassuring information or confirmation of their suspicions.

The best way to prevent rumors is to do away with wonder. And the best way to eliminate wonder is to proactively demonstrate your organization's values by practicing the Six Vital Integrities.
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