Re-thinking the rumor mill: Can any good come from gossip?

Rumor has it…

I’ve been thinking about that phrase quite a bit since reading a Wall Street Journal blog in which Cheryl Bachelder, CEO for the parent company for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, talks about her ascent up the corporate ladder.

Bachelder said avoiding water-cooler talk has been one of her keys to success, noting “all the lost productivity that comes from hallway conversation does absolutely nothing for the company or your career. It’s just pointless.”

Now there’s no doubt the rumor mill can have serious downside for an organization in terms of lost productivity and flagging morale. But pointless? As a corporate communicator, I beg to differ. I’m a believer that – handled with care – some good can come from gossip.

Here are three reasons why:

Rumors can be the source of better, more relevant content. Back in my days as a city hall newspaper reporter, I lived off the rumor mill. I got to know department staffers who grew comfortable enough with me to share what they were hearing on the back channel. The tidbits I picked up were often the roots of hard-hitting articles. I never sold out my sources, but when the right time came, I knew the questions to ask the Mayor to flesh out a story or pin down a fact. Similarly, if you are tuned into the corporate rumor mill, it can guide you in developing content that addresses many of the issues that people are really talking about – and care about. It also helps you frame up questions for leadership that might lead to better insight into where the organization is headed. For instance, if there is a persistence rumor of a pending acquisition, you can include some questions into a CEO Q & A about his or her views on potential merger activity.

Rumors help leaders understand what’s really happening. Senior leaders are often surrounded by so many yes-people that they become tone-deaf to the real attitudes, concerns and interest of employees. Communication professionals who have good relationships with leadership are in a unique position to share insights and advice based on what is percolating through the rumor mill. By tactfully conveying the current “buzz” to a senior leader, you will not only increase your value, but also provide that leader with valuable intelligence that he or she can leverage when interacting with employees and other audiences. Town halls or electronic communications can then be strategically peppered with information that addresses some of the rumors that are circulating. And a rumor that is flat-out false provides a leader a slam-dunk opportunity to be decisive and clear…”I know there may be some talk of so-and-so, I can tell you unequivocally that is not true.”

Rumors help employees handle change. Nothing heats up the water-cooler talk quite like tough times in an organization. As Popeyes CEO rightly stated, this type of gossip, can drain productivity and hurt morale. Yet human nature dictates that any effort to shut down the rumor mill is akin to playing Whack-a-Mole – hammer one down and up pops another. The reality is, when layoffs or reorganizations loom, people are going to talk. Yet from my perspective, the rumors can serve to inadvertently prepare many in the organization for inevitable change. No one likes bad news – but they really don’t like getting blindsided. Rumors – because they so often contain more than a few kernels of truth — help employees get their heads around the possibilities. When the time comes to officially deliver the news, most employees won’t be taken unaware – and they will have the I-knew-it-was-coming-all-along satisfaction that somehow seems to soften the blow. Meanwhile, it’s likely leaders may have a little easier time delivering the news, and pivoting to what the future holds.

So as a communication pro, avoid the water cooler at your own risk. Strategically spending some time there might just help your career – and your company.

Thoughts on the rumor mill as friend or foe? Would love to hear your take.

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