Throwing A Wrench In The Rumor Mill

By John Trombley
The Village Business Institute

I’m sitting at the gate waiting to board my plane for Chicago—except there is no plane to board. I have joined a throng of humanity all scheduled to depart from the same gate on three different flights. I’m a late-comer to the gang in that I’ve been here for only an hour while some have clearly been here long enough to get past their frustrations and are well on the way to Boredom. You know – that place where your mind is numbed by the lack of stimulating interaction.

You’d think you could find some solace on the electronic flight departure log conveniently located in the gate area—some bit of useful information. Apparently somebody somewhere is busy doing other things more exciting and more important than updating flight status information. Hey, I get it. Chicago is digging out of a snow storm and they had to re-fit the jets with snow plows in order to move down the taxiways. And as it turns out, all three incoming flights originate from The Windy City. At best, we’re looking at a two to three hour delay. You’d never know it from the departure log or even by visiting the airline’s Website, however. The information isn’t there so we are left guessing.

So what’s my point? Communication, communication, communication.

As noted lecturer and management consultant James A. Autry once said, “No one ever did a worse job for having too much information.” As of right now, we’re a half hour past departure time for my flight and finally–finally–a brave gate agent just made the announcement that our jet is broken in Chicago and they haven’t yet found a replacement. So much for using jets to plow taxiways, right? Still, you have to wonder why it took so took so long for that information to make its way to us, the folks who paid good money for this entertainment.

When people don’t have enough information, a number of interesting things happen. First, people begin to earn advanced degrees in M-S-U; they begin to “Make Stuff Up.” Hence, the birth of the rumor mill. Second, they get frustrated because they don’t know what is going on, which leads to irritation and eventually anger.

Does your workplace have an active rumor mill? Are people frustrated, irritated, or angry because they feel left in the dark? If so, it may be because they lack the necessary information they believe they need to do their job. Not always, of course, but at least sometimes. After all, some people just love to start the ball rolling to see how far it goes. So how do you stop the ball?

  1. Challenge the “facts.” It is amazing how many times we humans decry our opinions as though they are fact. “If I believe it, it must be true!” So ask the person to recount for you the factual background of the information they are sharing. If the story begins to fall apart, work to trace it back to the source and deal with it there.
  2. Ask the person to stop spreading their unfounded or fact-bare story with other people, and encourage them challenge others as well.
  3. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the rumor mill—seems like this should go without saying, but it’s worth mentioning. We’re all human and we are all subject to the same temptations. Just sayin’…
  4. “Prevention is the best medicine.” That age-old axiom fits well right here. If you are a supervisor or a manager, tell your direct reports and team members everything you can about the work to be done and anything that might affect it. Certainly there are some things that wisdom dictates you withhold, like those of a personal or proprietary nature, or things that must be shared only in certain forums. But too many people withhold information as a means of displaying power or establishing dominance. At the end of the day withholding information really is counter-productive and actually reduces your power and influence rather than expands it.

At the airport, time goes on and the clock keeps ticking. So far, two of those delayed jets have arrived, to the delight of two thirds of the people waiting here at the gate. The electronic board says my flight is now scheduled for a 9 p.m. departure. It seems they must have fixed the broken jet, or they wouldn’t post a departure time, right?

Hmmm. As cell phones start ringing and emails popping all around me, we learn our flight has been cancelled after all, and the airline is resorting to notifying us electronically. Maybe the gate agent sensed danger and decided not to come back. Of course, we don’t know because there are so many gaps in this communication process.

One by one, we all rise and trundle back to the ticket counter to stand in line for another two hours as the agents sort out flight itineraries, issue hotel vouchers, suffer the abuse of tired and frustrated would-be travelers, and so forth. As for me, my purpose for travel has now evaporated. I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight and reschedule this trip for a future date when there is no threat of winter storm delays. I hope. Somehow these things always have a way of working themselves out, but it would be nice to know what’s going on in the meantime. Maybe you and your team feel the same way.

Happy trails and safe travels to you.

John Trombley
John Trombley, The Village Business Institute

About the blogger
John E. Trombley, organization development consultant and training with The Village Business Insitute has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and a Master of Management degree from the University of Mary, Fargo. Prior to founding his own organization development company, John served as a Command Pilot, Squadron Commander, and senior staff officer in the USAF and Air National Guard—he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel with over 6,200 flying hours.

With over 14 years of experience in providing consulting services and training programs, Trombley has a passion for group process facilitation and corporate training in areas including leadership development, change management, leadership transition processes, managerial coaching, and personality assessment workshops. He is registered with the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota as a Qualified Neutral mediator, is trained in Critical Incident Stress Management Group Crisis Intervention, and is certified in Internal Investigations by the Council on Education in Management.

For more information, contact The Village Business Institute at 1-800-627-8220 or