Conspiracy Thinking in the Workplace Isn’t Harmless Gossip

Conspiracy theories in the workplace can lead to worker disengagement, diminishing positive feelings about the work environment, and appear to encourage turnover.

There was a moment, in our recent Breaking the Fever podcast episode, when I felt compelled to pause the recording. I wanted to linger on what our guest, Robert Brotherton, an expert on the psychology of conspiracy thinking and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, had said.

Today, in America, he explained, conspiracy thinking is not the norm. “If you’re seen as the conspiracy theorist, you’re in the wrong. People look down on you and ridicule you,” he said. But that’s not true everywhere. “There are other places where conspiracy thinking is much more the default mode of thinking. And if you’re not thinking along those lines, you’re naive. You’re the rube,” he said. This has to do with the transparency of government. In places like the Middle East and Russia, political and governmental matters are generally shielded or obscured from public scrutiny. “That goes hand-in-hand with conspiracy thinking,” Brotherton said. “And for a very good reason! There are more conspiracies.” An implausible story, or a wild explanation for some event, is better, according to the logic of our pattern-seeking mammal minds, than none at all.

Listen to “Episode 15 – Rob Brotherton” on Spreaker.

This is where I hit stop to appreciate my own lucky situation, living in a country with, among other things, a free press that doesn’t trust the word of the Trump, or any other, administration as a matter of course. In this sudden state of gratitude, the book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev, came to mind, as did a haunting quote from philosopher Hannah Arendt: “A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” 

Conspiracy thinking isn’t just a result of information suppression or mis- and disinformation saturation in wider society, of course. It can also fester in the relatively small confines of the workplace, corroding any sense of trust or collaborative spirit in an organization. Conspiracy beliefs can thrive when workers in businesses are relatively powerless, having little responsibility or control over their duties, and face uncertainty concerning things like the motives of new management. Employees in these circumstances are liable to suspect that managers may, for example, conspire to hire a particular person for a job, or coordinate in getting a worker fired. 

What effects are such organizational conspiracy theories likely to have on the workplace? A 2016 paper, published in the British Journal of Psychology, focused on a key outcome for organizations—employee turnover. The researchers found conspiracy theories in the workplace lead to worker disengagement, diminishing positive feelings about the work environment, and appeared to encourage turnover. The prevalence of conspiracy thinking predicted greater intentions to leave the organization. “Considering that the majority of adults spend a great deal of their time at work,” the researchers concluded, “organizational conspiracy theories may therefore pose a significant concern for organizations who wish to maintain a high level of commitment and participation in the organization.”

This isn’t to say the presence of conspiracy thinking in the workplace is uniformly bad. Conspiracies in companies do happen, after all, and when employees converge on an explanation of what’s gone wrong in a business, they can mobilize to correct course. As Brotherton told us, there’s a strange optimism to the conspiratorial mind: Problems can be solved, or overcome, if only people just recognize a conspiracy for what it is. An unmasked conspiracy is well on its way to being a powerless one.

Brian Scott Gallagher is Ethical Systems’ Communications Director. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.

Lead image: Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock