The math itself is straightforward. In any company with more than two people, there will be times when some people have information that other people don’t. In any company with more than three people, there is an opportunity for two people to talk about what two other people are up to. Rumours happen.
But when I hear you talk about the rumour mill, you mean something much more systemic. You mean that there is a constant, inflammatory whisper network. Like a termite infestation, you can’t see the full extent of it. But you see little eruptions here and there, and sometimes you uncover a big piece of rot. Those things let you estimate its size, and it’s big. It’s big enough to destroy what you’ve built. And you want it to stop.
The worst part about termites is that you never know if you got them all. You want to blame one thing, plug one hole, and not have to worry any more. You want a head termite that you can hold personally accountable.
It doesn’t work that way with termites. But it’s tempting to believe that it does with rumour mills. Find the leaks. Hold people accountable. Most rumour mills draw their energy from one or two very active participants, that’s true. But even if you drive them out, others take their place. The root cause of a rumour mill isn’t the leaks, or the secret Slack channels, or the crew that goes out for drinks after work. The root cause for a rumour mill is you.
The Black Market of Information
No one enjoys being shut out. Most adults understand that sometimes you need to delay gratification, that we can’t share all things with all people at all times. But that doesn’t mean they like it.
History is pretty reliable on this subject. When you constrain the official supply of a thing that people want, you create a black market. When you tell people they can’t drink, you create vast enterprises dedicated to supplying booze. When you tell people they can’t have pop music, they press Elvis records on to x-rays. Black market products may not be as good as the real thing but, when the real thing isn’t gettable, the black market does a brisk business just the same.
Information is always valuable, but it matters most when things feel volatile. We are narrative creatures. When we see a bunch of change happening we look for threads to explain it and restore our sense of control. In a tech organization, where volatility is a structural part of the business, the demand for that information is always high. Guess what happens when you ration it?
It doesn’t matter what your reasons are. Your team might even agree that rationing is prudent for this piece of information or that. It doesn’t reduce the latent demand. If anything, demand increases with proximity. Knowing that the information is nearby, and valuable enough to restrict, makes it more desirable.
An entrenched rumour mill doesn’t burst into being the first or the second time this happens. People whisper, you get to where you can talk about things again, and the whispering dies down. The rumour mill, like a black market, takes root when rationing becomes the norm.
The first time you keep a secret close and see a rumour mill erupt around it, it doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel like your culture. Your exec team talks about how to shut it down. You have an all-hands town hall to discuss it. You clear the air. And you think it’s now behind you.
The danger is when you conclude from that episode that you need to keep better secrets next time. Because your team has now learned that rumour mills exist in your company, and can be lit up when needed.
So the next time there’s something hard, you clamp down. No more talking at your desks in the open concept office. Now it’s senior leadership all in a room with a closed door. Which gets people talking. Someone you hired from a larger company suggests you start using codewords for projects that aren’t ready for discussion. Private google docs and cryptic meeting invites abound. Which gets people guessing. You start to talk an awful lot about internal comms strategies.
When you finally do talk to the team, it’s like an algae bloom. Information pours into the room like nutrients into a starved ocean, and the anxiety and energy that froths to the surface is overwhelming. How could they come to that conclusion? Who would read what I said that way? Why are they so angry?
Tilting At Rumour Mills
Yelling doesn’t work on termites. It doesn’t work on algae, and it doesn’t work on rumour mills, either. You can’t round up ringleaders and Put A Stop To It, because they’re serving a market that doesn’t go away when they do. I’ve watched leaders rant at a room full of people about it. I wonder what they imagine that can do to help.
If you want to get rid of black market sellers, you need to reduce demand for their product. When their product is counterfeit information, the good news is that you have the authentic product. The bad news is that sometimes you feel like you can’t share it. And sometimes you’re right. But you can often share more than you think.
When you’re a leader, you see so much stuff that your team doesn’t. It can be easy to feel like that’s your job. You deal with the shit so that they don’t have to. Usually the excuse is that you “don’t want to distract them.” Sometimes it’s that you don’t want to hurt morale. But your staff aren’t children, and they know when they’re being kept in the dark. The rumour mill is their rational response to seeing stress without context. They see change without narrative, and they fill in the gaps. When that happens, how much distraction have you actually prevented? How much have you created?
The best leaders I work with give away a lot of trust. They are honest about the hard parts of the business. They talk about their uncertainties. For many of you, this feels like a terrifying and stupid idea. It’s certainly possible to do it badly and create panic. Unmanaged bluntness is almost as destructive as pervasive secrecy. But if you want to get rid of the rumour mill, you need to thread the needle.
You can tell your team that the fundraising didn’t go well as long as you have an answer for what comes next. You can tell them that the business is in a tough spot as long as you can point them at the most important problems to work on to make it better. You can’t talk about personnel problems, but many of those bottom out as a conversation about values, which are always fair game. Rumour mills are not the same as gossip. Most people aren’t looking to be awful, they just need enough information to understand and move on.
I know this is scary stuff for a leader. You don’t want a rumour mill, but you don’t want the team freaking out, either. I don’t know what the right balance is for your company’s culture. I don’t know what difficulties you think you need to keep from them. But what I do know is that, if you find yourself worrying a lot about rumour mills, you’re getting that balance wrong.