Management The truth, by definition, is capable of defending itself

How to Build a Rumor

There’s a rumor wandering through your team right now. I’m sorry to report; it’s toxic. It’s the kind of rumor that contains so much interest and emotional energy that the humans can’t help repeat the rumor to each other.

It’s about you, and it’s completely untrue.

When you hear the rumor, the content will give you instant white hot blinding rage, and you’ll irrationally think, “I’m going to find the person who started this lie, and I am going to give them a piece of my mind.” Bad news. It is unlikely you’ll ever know where this rumor came from and, worse, it’s a certainty that it’s not the last toxic rumor to wander your halls.

When you calm down and are ready to listen, I have three stories to tell. I’ll explain where many rumors originate, why they perpetuate, and I’ll finish with a simple communication technique to combat them.

Grey Space

I’ve had this hypothetical meeting. Many times.

Joel, a peer, walks into the conference room upset. This scheduled-at-the-last-minute 15-minute meeting has no agenda. Joel starts, “Thanks for the meeting. I’m kind’a freaking out.”

“What’s up? How can I help?”

“Chris [Joel’s boss] was out last week. She canceled our 1:1 the week before, so I didn’t know she was going to be out. That’s two 1:1s that we missed.”

“Ok, but she’s back today, right?”

“Right and I’m pretty sure she’s going to fire me.”

“Whoa, two missed 1:1s and a bit of missing context do not a firing make, Joel. There’s something essential I’m missing here, right?”

There’s not. The more questions I ask, the more I realize that based on two missing 1:1s and the fact Chris forgot to tell her team she was out on vacation, Joel is concluding he is going to be fired. There is absolutely no clear rationale for Joel’s opinion.

It’s just plain old fear.

The rule for your team is, “In the absence of information, they will make up the worst possible version of the truth usually reflecting their worst fears.” This deceptively simple rule is the reason for many of the rumors in your team and at your company.

Being a part of rapid growth start-ups for the past seven years, I’ve had front row seats for watching rumor cultures grow. It is during rapid growth that communication structures are tested. Each new human who arrives needs to understand the company, its culture, and its values. I’m talking about both the values you paint on the wall and the silent values that exist as a part of each team.

Overt and covert values are more easily infected and corrected before the organism reaches a size where the number of relatively new hires (the New Guard) outnumber the Old Guard. At this inflection point, the culture starts to drift because the amount of entropy introduced by the New Guard exceeds the ability of the Old Guard to correct it. This is when the fascinating rumors begin.

Rumors start in the gray space. This is the space created in between rapidly growing teams who used to interact every day but are now sitting in different buildings. This is the space created by communication vacuums. You neglected to explain your intent regarding a strategic product decision. A single sentence at an all-hands was misinterpreted, and no one raised their hand to clarify. This rumor began as a simple misunderstanding and then it became something much stronger and pervasive. How?


In 1951, Solomon Asch, a psychologist, conducted a series of experiments. Groups of eight participants were asked to complete a simple perceptual task. The reality was that seven of the eight participants were actors and were following a script. The eighth participant had no idea the others were actors and assumed everyone had free will.

The experiment was simple. Each participant viewed a card with a line on it, followed by another with three lines labeled “A,” “B,” and “C.”

Each participant was then asked to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card. All of the lines were similar to the line above in that they were meant to differentiate quickly. There was no trick to the cards. The trick was that the participant with free will would always answer last, which meant that they heard everyone else’s selection before their own.

There were 18 trials and for 12 out of those 18 trials; the actors picked the wrong line. Overall, 75% of the free will participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of the 12 critical trials.

Again, there is no visual trick. Each test was as blatantly obvious as the one I showed above. The trick is purely social. It’s the unspoken pressure of being the one person out of eight who are wondering why in the hell everyone else is choosing the obvious wrong and then caving to that pressure because, “Well, those other seven people must know something I do not.”

The Asch conformity tests provide insight into groupthink. They demonstrate how we might choose an obvious erroneous path or explanation simply because the people around us have already done so. In my opinion, Asch also explains the means by which rumors move around an organization and gather strength.

Remember, in this Asch set-up, everyone is a stranger, and the question and the answer are obvious (“Can you pick matching lines?” “Yes.”). When an utterly bizarre rumor shows up not once, not twice, but three times from people you trust, you start to wonder, “Well, there must be some truth there, right?”

The rumor started with just a hint of truth. There was a simple question to answer, but then it entered the communication tapestry of your organization, the truth vanished. As it was passed between trusted parties, it gathered strength. The lie was reinforced and morphed by friends and co-workers who trust each other.

Rumors can be weapons. Rumors can change the course of history, but once more, we are not talking about these vile instruments, we’re talking about a misunderstanding, we’re talking about a conversation misheard then morphed in the hallway, and now we’re going to talk about what you can do about it.

The Severity of Nonsense

Your brain is trained to detect bullshit. Evolutionarily-speaking, I don’t know how we acquired this essential skill, but each human being can listen to a statement and make an initial assessment, “Bullshit or not?”

Now, in the world full of robotic targeted micro-messaging designed to match our worldview we, as a species, as collectively super awful at bullshit detection and prevention, but that doesn’t mean you can’t individually fight the power.

The difference between bullshit and a rumor is the severity of the nonsense. Bullshit sounds so insanely bizarre; it’s easier just to ignore whereas a rumor often contains a semblance of truth that gives it a scene of credibility. Whether it’s a rumor or a straight-up bullshit, your response is the same: discover the truth.

A reminder. Our hypothetical rumor is about you which means upon discovery your rage is going to be high. When that rage passes, you are in a unique position to triage this rumor because lucky for you, you… are you. However this rumor has mutated in the hallways of your company, you are capable of triaging the rumor and building an informed opinion because you are, hopefully, an expert on you.

The standard knee-jerk response to a rumor discovered is the witch hunt response. WHO WOULD SAY SUCH A THING AND BOY I AM GOING TO GIVE THEM A PIECE OF MY MIND WHEN I FIND OUT WHO… Etc.

Chill. Scary but true rule: As a leader, at any given point during your tenure, 30% of the team is unhappy with your performance. It’s not personal; it’s simply that you are the leader in this situation. Even with a sound strategy, perfect judgment, and flawless execution of all your projects, a significant minority is somewhere between unhappy to full of rage regarding your performance. Your choice regarding Project X was not their choice. You said a thing at a meeting which was not aligned with their values. It’s an endless list of valid grievances. You will never know them all, but they exist. Right now.

Your witch hunt reflex is normal because a good rumor is unintentionally designed to feel like a punch to the face. Rumors travel through the hallways of the corporation refining their potency by being retold. In each retelling, a rumor is edited by the humans and we humans love great stories. As a rumor travels from one human to the next, the story is improved because it is embellished. It’s a cruel efficient editing process unintentionally designed to give the story maximum dramatic effect.

And there’s truth there.


Chill. There is a reason this rumor exists. There was some situation in the past that forced its existence, and the only useful thing you can do is to stop and reflect on what truth is contained within its toxicity. I’ve watched a lot of witch hunts executed using “This isn’t our culture!” as a justification. For toxic, abusive, or aggressively evil rumors, this course of action is justified, but most witch hunts do little more than fuel the rumor mill (“They’re looking for witches!”). There is not one person who created this rumor; it was the whole team. Rumors are a function of culture.

Rather than stress uselessly about the source of the rumor or how it propagated, start by taking the time to reflect: What possible truth could be contained within the rumor? What unanswered question is this rumor trying to answer? It’s about you, so what is the organism asking?

Your journey of self-reflection on this a particular rumor is a test. I’m not you, I don’t understand your culture, and while I know contemplating, digesting, and understanding this rumor is rough, I know you need to discover what, however inefficiently, the team is telling you.

What recent visible actions have you taken? What public comments have you made? Who was there? What did they hear? Yes, there is non-zero chance this rumor is a complete fabrication, but this rumor didn’t die immediately, it traveled. It gathered strength as it traveled in your direction and there is also signal in that amplification.

It’s possible you won’t be able to discern the question being asked by this rumor. It’s too removed from its origin and has morphed into ridiculousness. This means you get to mentally shrug and remind yourself that at least 30% of the team is unhappy with some or all of your performance.

A better result is that you find a hint of the question being asked. It can be a solidly structured hypothesis or a wild ass guess, but with this insight in hand, you respond, and you act. You answer the question in either a public forum or with a change in your behavior. You release a little bit of truth into the wild.

Rumors are a Function of Culture

This is how your rumor started. In a meeting two weeks ago, you said a controversial thing about an important topic poorly. Because you were in a hurry, you only stated half of your justification before you ran out the door. Your goal was to inspire, but for the folks who hadn’t heard your pitch before, you mostly confused them.

One person in that meeting began an internal mental process that is the same process used for creative brainstorming – they began to theorize. Did he mean this? Or that? What are the implications of this odd thing? Let’s play those implications out. How do I feel about this? How do others feel? What does it all mean?

Again, a normal and healthy internal mental debate motivated by a desire to understand. After a period of consideration, this human will have an epiphany. They find their best thesis, and it’s intriguing one because humans love great stories. They want to vet this theory with others, and they make the first of two choices: directly share with you or share with a trusted friend?

You’re the boss. You’re in a hurry. You’re busy, so they choose the path of least resistance and talk with a trusted friend. As they are about to open their mouth, they make their second choice. Remember this thesis about you, you’re the boss, and it’s juicy, so they don’t start with “I think” they start with “I heard.” The friend aptly listens to the thesis, and they vigorously agree which is interesting because they weren’t in the meeting. They agree with their friend’s enthusiasm for the thesis, not the facts. And they tell a friend. Who tells another friend.

Rumors are a function of culture. In this manufactured scenario, it was easier and safer to not talk to the originator of the situation, but a distant observer. It was easier and safer to not stand behind one’s words but to attribute them to an anonymous other.

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6 Responses

  1. -dsr- 7 years ago

    For the first three years after I joined a particular small company, the president would randomly announce that there would be an all-hands meeting tomorrow.

    Every single time I assumed that the company was closing, going bankrupt, or being sold. (Every single time I was wrong.)

    Three years into this I felt sufficiently comfortable telling the president about my fears. He blinked, apologized, and ever since the announcements of all-hands meetings have come with a subject line indicating what he wants to talk about — or even a full agenda.

  2. The way I prefer to look at this sort of thing is to borrow from Akerlof’s nobel winning Lemon Markets theory: if management knows something but isn’t sharing it when they could, it must be below expected — lord knows we’d hear bragging about amazing results! But if we adjust our expectations, surely they’d predict that as well, and so the results must be below even our adjusted expectations. Recursively applied, asymmetric information hoarding suggests a negative result far into the tail of the distribution.

    And this is why rumors spread in the absence of information are nearly always negative.

  3. Rumors are created by fear, and fear is as real as facts for the people involved. Thus, rumors are spread as facts. The best way to deal with that kind of thing is to address the rumors head on. I find that anytime something happens, and the details cannot be shared, people will fill in the blanks with whatever feeds their fears. It is a human tendency, and it is a good idea to think in advance what kind of rumors might be generated by partially revealed truths.

  4. Jeff Powell 6 years ago

    Great article, and very true in my experience. Rumors are a function of culture, and trying to grok their source can be an interesting – and enlightening – experience.

    If I may, one small typo: “They find their best thesis, and it’s *an* intriguing one because humans love great stories.” Missing word, I think.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Caleb 4 years ago

    I bookmarked this a few days ago when someone shared it via rls. Just now getting through my reading list backlog, and sooo glad I did. Thanks for writing this one. The Asch experiment is damn fascinating.