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Managing Corporate Conspiracy Theories

We seem to have entered a strange era of conspiracy theories. Virulent rumors rule! Theories range from 5G cell phone towers causing COVID-19, to Bill Gates plotting to use coronavirus vaccines to implant microchips. However, beyond causing strained necks as we constantly shake our heads in disbelief, there are corporate implications too as I mention later. But first, it’s important to understand that the issue of conspiracy theories in general is not quite what it seems on the surface. In that respect, it’s a bit like President Andrew Jackson’s 1400 lb. cheese wheel.

You heard right, Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and more recently in the news for his racist legacy was given a gift of a very big block of cheese in 1835. It was an ode to democracy, and a gift from the people, to the man of the people. It was the idea of Colonel Thomas S. Meacham, a dairy farmer, to create it by using milk from all the dairies from Oswego County, New York. Before you say ‘Wait! As gift ideas go, that one stinks’, I should mention that cheesy gifts have been a thing with American presidents and politicians from the time of Thomas Jefferson.

However, even among similar fragrant favors, this was the biggest by far. And, within two years it became apparent that a cheese block that was four feet in diameter and two feet thick was not just a touching-but-impractical gift, but also a problem of mammoth proportions. Think about it. Where do you put it? Even after gifting away portions of the wheel Jackson still had, let’s see, 1375 lbs. left. A man of the people could hardly regift a gift of the people. So, Jackson did what any self-respecting politician would do. He put the people’s gesture on display. It was thus placed in the hallway of the White House. Unfortunately, that made matters worse. Imagine the Washington DC of 1835. It was hot, humid, sticky and of course perfectly uncomfortable in the summer, but without the redeeming services of air conditioning. Soon, residents who lived several blocks away started to get constant pungent reminders of the largesse of the dairy farmers from New York.

With his second term ending in 1837, in an attempt to end the nightmare, he came up with the idea of throwing a party. Ten thousand people showed up. And despite a few weak-willed individuals losing consciousness over the odor, the party was actually a grand success. Finally! The score read, Jackson 1: Cheese 0.

Or did it? When his successor Martin Van Buren moved into the White House, the whole place reeked of cheese. White-washing the house, airing the carpets and changing the drapes helped a bit, but the overpowering legacy of the previous resident remained for some time. And, in the best tradition of horror movie endings, Van Buren soon discovered that Col. Meacham, had also gifted a smaller 700lb wheel of cheese to Jackson, which the decorated general decided to abandon on the battlefield for the next leader to deal with.

Sometimes, things are just not what they seem to be. There are rumors that Col. Meacham was not supportive of Jackson’s politics. Is it possible that this was more than just a grateful gesture from him to the President?

Corporate conspiracy theories

Most people think that conspiracy theories don’t affect private companies. There’s also widespread belief that social media is responsible for the current proliferation of conspiracy theories. Many people, including myself until I researched the topic, believe that anyone who’s convinced of these stories must be a few cards shy of a full deck. That’s incorrect.

Firstly, as research by Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU Amsterdam and Karen M Douglas from the University of Kent has shown, the tendency to believe conspiracy theories goes beyond the specific theory itself. So, the tendency to believe that the earth is flat may be less about believing that the earth is not round that about a powerful outgroup who is able to harm you, and therefore must be checked.

This insight is important to understanding and dealing with corporate conspiracy theories. These rumors are about notions that powerful groups (e.g., managers) within the workplace are acting in secret to achieve some kind of malevolent objective. For example, managers may deliberately conspire to hire a preferred candidate for a job, or work together to have an employee fired. Whether in a societal setting or in an organization, these beliefs are simply the desire for certain people to make sense of something they feel is beyond their control. Blaming a powerful outgroup happens naturally.

Second, despite the deluge of conspiracy theories in recent times, research has shown that the phenomenon is not new. People with certain personality traits and cognitive styles are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. And, of course, these people are also part of the workforce. The concept of Occam’s razor, the idea that when faced with several competing explanations for an event, the simplest explanation that requires the fewest “leaps of faith” is usually correct, applies to them. It’s more complex to believe that if your career is not advancing in the desired direction or if your department or company seems directionless, there might be a problem with your own management style, versus resources being diverted to a secret ring of executives plotting the demise of humanity.

How to manage corporate conspiracies

Understanding social rumor management can help manage this issue in the workplace too. Knowing that rumors reflect the desire of people to better understand the world around them, and that some people have a stronger desire to control their lives, helps with tailoring communication plans. Research about rumors in the workplace has shown that creating open communication channels for subordinates to bring their concerns to management first, without broadcasting them on the corporate airwaves, helps significantly.

So, 5G will not cause coronavirus, Elvis is not alive, Paul McCartney didn’t die in 1966 and get replaced by a look-alike, and Prince Charles is not a vampire. And yes, Finland does exist; it wasn’t made up by Russia and Japan. However, the tendency to want to believe these rumors will always be there. Similarly, opinions about companies being involved in evil world-domination, and most rumors about managers engaging in nefarious plans, are equally incorrect. However, they are all understandable and can be managed. That is all, except the one about Elvis, I’d really like him to be alive.