Rumour mongers


We are in a society where words such as; Have you heard? No what? Well i heard that thirty staffs are going to be laid off as the company cannot afford to retain them because of the credit crunch. Are you serious, where did you hear that? This essay is based on managing word of mouth communication in an organisation and in an attempt to evaluate the challenge and how to manage word of mouth communication in an organisation this essay will attempt to answer questions such as; what is word of mouth, what is rumour/gossip? Who are rumour mongers, how do we manage rumours/gossip?

These questions trends to illustrate scenarios that are very common in many organisations. Here, individuals, also within an organisation discuss a range of issues that have not been confirmed to originate from formal communication channels (Michelson and Mouly, 2000). In organisations, these are one of the dominant forms of information exchange especially in conflict situations or in times of anxiety (Kimmel, 2004) and these pieces of information are believable because the teller supposedly gains nothing by telling, instead he is viewed more as sharing information. In addition, Kimmel suggests that these forms of information exchange are fuelled particularly by the underlying uncertainties and anxieties that are characteristic of the business and economic environment. Virtually all organisations at some point in time will have to contend with the spread of unverified stories about its operations or stability (social or financial), most of which is brought about by inadequate communications (Michelson and Mouly, 2000).Scholars have discovered that the act of rumour mongering or gossiping is not age or gender specific and that people of a higher occupational status or hierarchical level are not less likely to be involved in dissemination of rumours or gossips (Michelson and Mouly, 2000).

Who are the rumour mongers?

Esposito and Rosnow (1993) believe that not every participant involved in the ‘web' of a rumour is a rumour monger. They identified three classes of people in a rumour scenario;

* Liaisons: they receive and spread information

* Dead Enders: they receive but don't spread information

* Isolates: they do not receive information at all.

They also identified some traits of rumour mongers in a study at Temple University, United States of America in 1970. They expected that the “Paul McCartney is dead rumour” would be spread by the sociable people with many friends. However, it was discovered that less sociable and popular students were seen to act more like the ‘Liaisons'. They were seen to pass on alluring stories in a bid to make friends and become popular. It would seem like these students used rumour mongering in an attempt to boost their self esteem.

There is also a very common myth that women are more likely to be rumour mongers/ Gossips than men. According to Room (1996), the term gossip was derived from the corruption of an old English term ‘godsibb' which at that time meant a woman's female friend at the birth of her child. This female friend had the responsibility of telling those who were not present of the child birth. Therefore, gossip was seen primarily as a female form of communication although it wasn't seen as a scornful act at the time (Bergmann, 1993). In the 16th century, the term gossip had started to acquire a negative meaning especially when it was applied to women. Women were viewed to always make idle talk, tattle or run their mouths but on the other hand when men gossiped it was viewed as positive, constructive talk (Rosnow and Fine, 1976). More evidence is apparent with the use of phrases like ‘you chatter too much like an old woman' which is usually said to men that talk a lot. This phrase manages to link the female gender with a talkative behaviour, but in reality men are seen to be as talkative as women (Bergmann, 1993).

Finally, rumours were also discovered to be common among individuals that find themselves in ambiguous or threatening situations where they have no control over the outcomes (Difonzo et al, 1994). Here they believe that rumour dissemination is more dependent on situational factors rather than individual characteristics (Michelson and Mouly, 2000). For example, employees in an unstable or threatening organisational environment with a poor internal climate will tend to depend on and prefer this informal mode of communication to formal communication (Crampton et al, 1998).

The Romans, in ancient times associated the word ‘rumour' with fame and reputation which challenges a lot of definitions of rumour and the context in which it is being used by many scholars (Froissart, 2008). However in recent times, the definition has changed taking into account the propagation of information along a chain of subjects. It was also emphasized from research done that the movement of this information along the subjects went from being true to becoming less accurate. This theory is supported by Allport and Postman(1947) who believe that as rumours are passed on, they would become leveled (shorter and more concise), sharpened (details left out), and assimilated (more coherent and fine tuned so that it is interesting to the listeners). Akande and Odewale (1994) concur but add that despite variations during transmission, the core message or theme remains intact.

What is a rumour/ gossip?

Allport and Postman (1947) define rumour as a specific (or topical) proposition for belief, passed along from person to person, usually by word of mouth, without secure standards of evidence being present. It is also defined as an unverified piece of information of uncertain origin usually spread by word of mouth. It can be classified as positive or negative based on its content and effect (Bordia et al, 2003). A gossip however is very similar to a rumour, but is of a more personal or intimate nature. Tebbutt and Marchington (1997) believe that rumour and gossip share many similarities although rumour “is a more public and widely disseminated phenomenon than gossip”. Conversely, gossip typically occurs in a context of privacy and intimacy and only through friends and acquaintances, and only with friends and acquaintances (Bergmann, 1993). Gossip places emphasis on issues or events of interest to an individual or small group while the concept of rumour extend beyond a small group since its message is of more universal interest (Rosnow and Fine, 1976). For this reason, some regard gossip as a derivative of rumour. However, the claim that gossip is a more private or “secretive” process than rumour ignores the mode of information transmission. Gossip can make its way into the public if it is placed on, for example gossip magazines. In this case the information is made available to the public; this undermines many definitions of gossip.

Similar interesting features of both rumour and gossip are that they are both information received third hand. They can be classified as either positive or negative based on their content and effect (Bordia et al, 2003). Also the sources of information are usually unverified. So in summary, they are both pieces of unauthenticated information either positive or negative in content that is passed from one individual to another (Dowd et al, 1997).

The concept of the ‘Grapevine' is also key to a concise analysis of rumour/ gossip. The ‘Grapevine', originally a term used during the American civil war to describe telegraph lines run out, is now used to describe informal communication channels used to communicate rumours or gossip (Crampton et al, 1998).

Rumours are believed to originate when people exert effort to decipher uncertain events or ambigous situations and will retell the rumour to ‘like minds' to make meaning of it (Allport and Postman, 1947). This suggests that transmission of rumours is dependent on its relevance as well as uncertainty.

Rosnow (1991) agrees but adds that it is the fact that talking and sharing helps to reduce anxiety of uncertain situations that people start and spread rumours.

Shibutani (1966) in contrast with Rosnow believes that people do not use rumours to reduce anxiety but rather use this form of communication as a form of collective problem solving by pulling their intellectual resources together.

Guerin and Miyazaki (2006), believe that rumours are told by rumour mongers to influence people to like them, as well as foster social relationships and maintaining status with listeners. They are merely ways of getting and keeping a listeners attention. It is their way of becoming popular which boosts their self esteem (Carver et al, 1999). This is in line with Esposito and Rosnow's (1993) earlier thoughts.

All the above theories just serve to add credence to the fact that human beings are unique and that they might do similar things but for entirely different reasons. This has brought about classification of rumours into different types. Michelson and Mouly (2000), suggest that there are four categories of rumour.

* The ‘pipe dream' or wish fulfilment: here rumours help to give voice to the wishes of those who circulate them. For example, a rumour about employees going on strike if they don't get a much deserved pay raise.

* Anxiety rumour: here rumours are driven by fear and uncertainty, this creates unease among employees. For example, a rumour about a company not being able to cope with the credit crunch and its intention to downsize as a result.

* Anticipatory rumour: where rumours arise from ambiguous situations. This could be a rumour about the next batch of people to be promoted within an organisation.

* Corrosive or aggressive rumour: these rumours are created with the intent to harm others. A popular example is usually observed in relationships where rumours of a cheating boyfriend are told in order to break up that relationship.

There are both internal rumours, such as who is getting laid off, getting promoted or why someone left the company. External rumours range from who is investing in your company, to what competitors are doing to compete against your organization.

Although there is reasonable amount of literature on rumour/ gossip in fields like communication and social psychology, little research can be found in a business context and much of the popular business literature tends to treat rumour/gossip as an activity that is hazardous to an organization.

According to Michelson and Mouly (2000), rumour and gossip can break the harmony of a workplace if not properly managed. Many scholars believe that time spent gossiping hinders employee productivity (Akande and Odewale, 1994). Managers also believe that if rumours are allowed to gnaw at people's minds it might have a negative effect on their morale (Kimmel, 2004) and the act should be eradicated. According to ISR over a two-year period of time evaluating 57 companies. Those that were poor in rumour management lost on average 7.10 in share prices compared to an increase of share value by $8.10 to those that manage rumours effectively.

In an organizational context, word of mouth either positive or negative is a powerful tool that can drive business growth either upwards or downwards (Marsden et al, 2005). This might suggest that there is a positive side to rumours. Mishra (1990) points out that rumours can be used by managers to observe the effects of newly introduced policies or protocol by observing employee reactions through these informal communication channels. Also, rumours can be positive in that it is used by many employees in self appraisals, here the employee engages in chit chat about someone that is respected and adored in the organization in a view to find out the adorable qualities of the person in a bid to improve ones own self (Suls, 1977). Some might say rumours help in team building, a value that is no doubt emphasized in modern business organizations. This is achievable when team mates feel free to discuss issues in an informal manner without tension and anybody not included in the gossip network is regarded as an outsider who is not trusted and accepted by the group (McAndrew, 2008).

Positive and negative rumours have spurred managers in recent times to try and manage this informal communication channel, so as to be able to use it to their own advantage by getting quick and unbiased feedback.

How do we manage rumours/gossip?

Traditionally according to many definitions, rumour is seen to be spread by word of mouth only. This should causes concern for many managers because negative rumours disseminate very fast. Studies by Mattila (2001) show that a customer, in this case, an employee (internal customer) is likely to tell ten to twenty people about a negative experience he or she encountered at work. Successful rumour management may prevent this negative word of mouth propaganda (Liao, 2007). More disturbing for managers is that rumours will always be a part of a business environment and contrary to beliefs that rumours are only spread by word of mouth (as if that isn't difficult enough to handle), recent technological developments have expanded dramatically our ability to disseminate information. This is made obvious with the rise in frequency of rumours being spread by media outlets (Kimmel, 2004).

Unexpected and unexplained events can spark rumours among employees. If ignored by Human resources and the management team, rumours can take on a life of their own hurting productivity and morale (Mishra, 1990).

It's natural for employees to assume the worst. But there's an art to dealing with rumours and it involves timing: You must know when to act and when not to.

Do not bother too much about a single rumour that occurs in isolation and dies in a few hours or days. But attention should be paid to rumour patterns that begin to emerge. They may signal a deeper problem than the subject of the rumour, and they may be worth discussing at the top level.

There is no clear-cut method for dispelling rumours. The only rule is to do it fast. The longer rumours are allowed to circulate, the more damaging they become. Four tips have been identified by The HR Specialist (2007) for managing rumours.

1. Take note of subtle changes in the atmosphere. When a usually bustling workplace becomes quiet and conversations halt when one walks into a room, beware. Dispel the mystery by asking employees directly "What's going on?" Listen and respond.

2. Announce upcoming changes, whenever possible. Unexplained surprises breed rumours. Whenever possible, keep employees informed of changes that could affect them. If employees cannot be told ahead of time, expect rumours to spread and preparations should be made to manage them.

Stay particularly alert in situations that breed uncertainty, but be equally candid about the type of information you can (and will) share. Refuse to indulge in the rumour.

3. Head off rumours at the pass. Establish a reputation for having an open and above-board style. If employees believe management will be straight with them, they will be more likely to come and ask for answers and less likely to indulge in speculation. Couple that with an open door that is truly open and 99 percent of the problems will be avoided.

If a big rumour brings work to a standstill, consider a meeting or a memo to bring everyone up to speed or to quash the rumour.

If there is a rumour about sale of the organization, bring employees together (maybe during an already-planned training event), so they all hear the same thing at the same time.

4. Tap into the grapevine. Managers should make sure they are never the last to know. They should fine tune their "radar" and question employees if they suspect that rumours might be developing. Rumours grow when information is scarce. If employees know they can trust you to keep them informed, they will have no need to invent answers themselves. This can be done by creating an internal company blog site where issues with the company are posted anonymously and other employees share their opinions.


In conclusion, rumour and gossip have gone way beyond just word of mouth, they are no doubt powerful means of information exchange through informal channels and the rate of dissemination is so fast that it might pose problems for managers if it is not properly managed. This in recent times is due to improved modes of communication like the internet, mobile phones (text messaging) and even gossip magazines. Also the common belief that rumours always have negative effects like time wasting and reducing staff morale in organizations is seen to not always be the case. In fact rumours if properly harnessed can be used to the advantage of the managers in decision making as well as foster relationships between employees. This is why setting up the methods of picking up rumours early and managing it helps to keep employees focused and productive.

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