The rumor mill in our co-op has gotten completely out of hand. Residents recently claimed that the board fired a staff member for selling drugs out of the handyman’s office. (Not only did we not fire him for that reason — we didn’t fire him at all.) Another day the building was buzzing with rumors of a 20% increase in maintenance fees. (It will be 5%.) More recently, we heard concerns that we’ll be cutting down all trees on the property, to save water. (We won’t.) We spend a lot of time trying to correct misinformation. It’s exhausting, and sometimes we aren’t successful. Any way we can reduce this endless stream of speculation?
— Rumored-out on Roosevelt Island
It is possible to reduce the stream of rumors. But you’re trying to do it the hard way: by correcting misinformation after the fact. As you’ve seen, that’s not a very effective or efficient strategy.
Instead, you need to get ahead of the rumor process. Here’s a quick explanation of what causes rumors — and how you can prevent them from getting traction in your building.
What causes rumors? Rumors flourish in situations of uncertainty. Uncertainty causes stress, anxiety and fear. The human brain hates it. When we are confronted with uncertainty about something that matters to us, we look for credible and trusted sources to give us the info and assurance we need to feel safe.
But what if those sources aren’t communicating? Or we just don’t trust them? That’s when we tend to take matters into our own hands. (Note: Sometimes one individual creates a rumor for nefarious purposes. Usually, however, people create rumors in groups. And they do so with the simple aim of reducing uncertainty.)
Rumors develop in stages. During the construction stage, we speak to others about plausible reasons for what we see or are worried about. We try to predict what might happen next. During the confirmation stage, we agree on a likely explanation. During the third stage, transmission, we share the rumor more broadly. Your chances of correcting a story diminish greatly once transmission starts. So you need to intervene before that.
What can you do? Use a strategy of both immediate and long-term actions. The immediate action is to improve communication with residents. Ask yourselves some tough questions about your current communication approach. Do you even have an approach? If not, now’s the time to put one in place. Are you making assumptions about what people want to hear, and erring on the side of “less is more”? When communicating, more is more (and usually better). Are you waiting to communicate until you have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed? Don’t. Tell them what you know and don’t know, then follow up with more when you have it. Are you shying away from sharing what you believe is sensitive info, thus leaving gaping holes in your explanations? Try starting with a bias toward communicating everything and removing only what you absolutely cannot reveal. Finally, do you have a way to collect residents’ questions and concerns? Make sure they know whom to contact — and how. And use informal discussions to get additional insights.
Long term, you need to build and maintain a solid relationship with your residents. You want them to see you as both credible and trustworthy. [If they already do, congratulations; if not, see “Trust Is a Board’s Superpower” (Habitat, March 2022) for some tips.]
You’ll never fully eliminate rumors. But these steps can help you establish the board as your residents’ most reliable and sought-out source of building information.
Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.