“Did you hear the news? Our product has a huge flaw and we’re going to be sued.” “They’re selling the company, and we’re all going to be laid off.” If these are the kinds of conspiracy theories buzzing around your break room, your employees aren't getting much done. They’ll be soon looking for new jobs or talking with people in other departments about what they heard, unless you stop it.
What can you do to rein in conspiracy theorists at your company? Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School and a team of researchers, looked into why people start and spread conspiracy theories. More importantly, the researchers have recommendations on how managers can get employees back on track.
Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories
Previous research shows that adults’ willingness to believe in conspiracy theories is linked to “educational attainment, narcissism, and even how easily someone gets bored.” When employees spread conspiracy theories, it might seem like fun. They may even believe they're helping to protect each other's jobs while they speculate about what's true. Here's how to turn around the situation.
How to Identify Promotion-Based Individuals
In Wang’s study, researchers classified adults into two groups. People who were encouraged to think about or work toward specific goals fell into the promotion-focused group. The folks were generally forward-thinking and eager to succeed. In the prevention-focused group, adults were told to protect what they had in the face of adversity. These folks were primed to be change-averse. The researchers studied responses to hypothetical scenarios from people in both types of groups. In their studies, researchers work with members of the military, college students and online participants.
Wang found some correlation between a promotions-based attitude and an unwillingness to believe in conspiracy theories. For example, if you’ve taken the time to work with an employee on a specific set of goals, and you’ve given them input into those goals, they have ‘agency.’ They’re committed to what they’re doing. They’re not likely to be swayed by wild rumors.
How to Influence Prevention-Focused Individuals
The even better news from Wang’s study is that prevention-focused individuals can be swayed. You may have staff members who always see the glass as half-empty. They may be fearful of change. In the absence of positive, forward-thinking information, they may be particularly prone to believe conspiracy theories and gossip. To shut down this tendency, work with these team members closely. Help them establish goals they are excited about achieving.
Give your team members positive direction and reinforcement, and they’ll be less likely to spread conspiracy theories.