Even in workplaces where the vast majority of employees have similar political beliefs, conspiratorial mindsets can present challenges for companies. Researchers found that conspiracy theorists often distrust authority and focus more on their interests; they will deceive others to achieve their own goals. Conspiracy theories can show up in benign ways, such as Jane is pregnant and in more severe forms such as talking about a perceived injustice, such as the real reason for that recent promotion. “Managers and employees should be careful not to dismiss conspiracy theorizing as harmless rumors and gossip.”
We, the authors, carry two different social and political perspectives; one of us tends to see political issues through a conservative lens; the other, progressive. We have significant differences of opinion about political “facts” and their interpretation. While our views differ, we share a growing mutual concern: organizations that ignore CTs’ impact in the workplace may be unprepared for very real challenges. In writing this article, we “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” We put aside our political differences because our research shows that “conspiratorial thought is not correlated with partisanship.” People with different political affiliations “are equally likely to accept conspiracy theories that denigrate their rivals.” 
Research in the British Journal of Psychology shows that conspiracy theories in the workplace may demonstrate an employee’s feelings about the company with lower commitment and job satisfaction and a greater readiness to leave. On the flip side, organizations are more likely to keep employees engaged if managers are vigilant towards corruption, demonstrate transparency, and hold power-holders accountable. This article aims to equip leaders with tools to recognize and prevent the spread of CTs in their organizations, and to intervene swiftly if/when they do arise.
Conspiracy Theories as an Emerging Threat
The deterioration in individuals’ ability to engage in rational, coherent, and respectful dialogue about differences puts organizations at risk. Tom Nichols, author of the “Death of Expertise” and professor of public policy at the U.S. Naval War College, argues that society is vulnerable to an intensifying interest in CTs when it ignores experts. Nichols contends that despite a person’s hard-earned expertise, many forces have left us with conversations where “my opinion is as good as your opinion.” One study on reports of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 found that 82 percent of the 2,276 claims were false. The authors concluded, “Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines.” The volume and speed at which conspiracy theories spread, along with their scope and impact, is hard to appreciate.
Tools for Dealing with Conspiracy Theories in the Workplace
Uscinski and his coauthors define a conspiracy “as a secret arrangement between a small group of actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hide vital secrets, or illicitly cause widespread harm.” The conspirators “act in secret for their own benefit against the common good.” CTs are dangerous when “false, harmful, and unjustified.” Many leaders have experienced the negative effects of wild rumors in their organizations; CTs are that and more.
In fairness, not all CTs are harmful or unfounded. For example, for decades, consumers and scientists claimed cigarettes were harmful and that tobacco companies lied in denying the health risks. After mounting investigative and scientific evidence, the facts revealed tobacco companies colluded to hide medical data about the harmfulness of smoking cigarettes. At its best, the inclination to believe CTs provokes a healthy skepticism, which encourages further investigation and data collection. At its worst, CTs can produce divisiveness, destroy trust, increase employee turnover, decrease performance, and reduce financial results. Negative workplace consequences increase when people spread them before checking the source’s reliability and reputation.
When first inquiring about the presence of conspiracies in the workplace, it is tempting to believe that they are isolated to a particular group, psychological profile, or level of education. Not so. Look across your organization, where one-out-of-two people believe in some form of a conspiracy theory.  Following an eight-year study, two political scientists, Tom Wood and Eric Oliver, found that “about half of Americans believe in one or more of the common ones.” “Fear, anxiety and even paranoia can proliferate during a pandemic.” Referring to the study, a New Scientist article explained that “belief in conspiracy theories is very widespread, the product of normal human psychology, and extremely influential and dangerous.” “Belief is more widespread among the less educated but is by no means confined to them. Educated people are also susceptible if a conspiracy theory fits with their pre-existing world view.” People endorse CTs across the ideological spectrum.
If belief in CTs is so prevalent, how does the organizational leader identify those who may endorse the forms of CTs that could threaten the organization? We propose heeding four vital aspects of CTs.
Recognize the conditions
First, recognize the conditions that make employees vulnerable to CTs. “Research suggests that conspiracy theories tend to prosper in times of crisis as people look for ways to cope with difficult and uncertain circumstances. Since early 2020, communities are simultaneously absorbing the shocks of a global, multi-phase pandemic, a contentious U.S. election, threats to security and safety, dramatic climate change and a severely damaged economy. The consequences of coronavirus pandemic safer-at-home restrictions and the effects of business closures affect subjective feelings of well-being including employment, income, home, personal and family health, and the safety and security of loved ones.  Those working from home often feel isolated. Not regularly communicating with peers and supervisors creates a vacuum for unsubstantiated speculation.
Recognize the benefits
Conspiracy theories offer a palliative to mitigate the effects of uncertainty, powerlessness, isolation, discouragement, and contradictory information.
- They often appear to be a logical explanation of events or situations which are difficult to understand, bringing a false sense of control and agency.
- They satisfy the desire to hold one’s self and one’s groups in positive regard.
- Shared beliefs provide a sense of community.
- People who support a CT believe it provides answers to important, complex questions.
Recognize the characteristics
The European Commission and UNESCO addressed the rise of coronavirus pandemic-related conspiracy theories with information and guidelines. They found that Conspiracy Theories share six characteristics:
- An alleged secret plot
- A group of conspirators
- Supposed “evidence” that seems to support the CTs.
- They falsely suggest that nothing happens by accident, there are no coincidences, nothing is as it appears, and the CT connects everything.
- They divide the world into good or bad.
- They scapegoat people and groups.
Recognize the harm
“Conspiracy theories can be dangerous;” warns UNESCO, “they polarize society and fuel violent extremism.” The 2020 U.S. election left America divided. Workplaces where employees argue their political differences could become centers of escalating emotions, and “while most people who spread CTs genuinely believe in them, others deploy them cynically to achieve these effects.” The harm associated with CTs can take these forms:
- The emergence of and conflict between in-groups (believers) and outsiders (gullible, “sheep”)
- Breakdown of casual collaboration, such as forming, developing, and sustaining informal work networks, which, in turn, support productivity
- Unwillingness to discuss espoused theories rationally
- Rage and intolerance
- Shift from optimism to hopelessness
- Withdrawal from the work community
- Drop in the quality of work
- Unwillingness to contribute discretionary effort
- Rise in susceptibility to cybersecurity threats—e.g., phishing schemes
- Coronavirus-related unsafe behavior, such as refusal to wear masks or maintain social distancing, failure to get tested or treatment if required, and an unwillingness to get vaccinated (or, at a minimum, to consider credible evidence of the safety of vaccines).
Remedy: Anticipate and Intervene
Psychological safety is a characteristic of flourishing organizations. Where psychological safety is present, employees trust that they can express themselves without fear of negative consequences.  By contrast, psychological safety deteriorates when conditions are “ambiguous, unpredictable, and threatening.” Organizational leaders face a predicament: enable their employees to hold and share diverse convictions while protecting their organizations from convictions that threaten their employees’ well-being, as we have described. We propose organizational leaders anticipate those conditions and then take actions to prevent their development and spread.
The more that leaders focus on preventing the spread of destructive CTs in the workplace, the less they will need to focus on responding to them. One reason we prefer prevention over-reacting to CTs is that they are tough to refute. “They have a self-sealing quality. The very arguments that give rise to them, and account for their plausibility, make it more challenging to rebut or even question them.”
Think of it this way. You are concerned that some employees are refusing the Coronavirus vaccine. You are concerned for the safety and health of all your employees. When asked, an employee speaking for other employees who share this conviction justifies his decision by claiming that pharmaceutical companies responded to public urgency by skipping trials that would ensure the vaccines’ safety. You reply that the vaccines met stringent Food and Drug Administration testing and requirements before approval. He replies that the FDA is in bed with Big Pharma and cannot be trusted. Now what? You are at an impasse.
At their worst, rumors in organizations share characteristics of CTs along with their damage to employee well-being. Consider the effects of this rumor. Word spreads that the company is about to be acquired. Employees have seen senior managers in extended meetings with people they do not recognize, serious-looking people in suits. Employees also learn that the company sold assets, which they interpret to mean it is raising money because the business is in trouble. Rumors of massive layoffs and worse ensue. Collaboration breaks down. Apathy sets in. Customer complaints rise. In short, employee engagement deteriorates.
Too late, management denies the rumors. Employees see the denial as an attempt to keep them in place until after the takeover. In sharp contrast to the rumors, the truth is that the company is preparing to expand. The expansion will create jobs and enable new opportunities for career growth. Management did not prioritize communicating with employees about the future expansion; instead, they focused on multiple time-sensitive tasks associated with the expansion.
Leaders can help prevent the destructive spread of CTs with these five steps:
- Anticipate situations that may produce destructive rumors and CTs. Recognize that employees working from home can feel they are in an information vacuum. Social distancing in the workplace can inhibit communication and collaboration.
- Communicate early and often, through diverse channels. The leadership team tells employees about the company’s successful performance and the planned expansion. The team uses various channels to keep their employees informed—e.g., Slack, brief video messages, email, Zoom, and other meetings. “Communication spreads throughout an organization that does not follow hierarchical lines.”
- Involve managers in the communication strategy. Gallup estimates that managers’ behavior account for up to 70 percent of employee attitudes. Ensure that supervisors communicate consistently with their employees. It is easy for managers to neglect employees who are working from home, leaving those employees feeling that the only time they hear from their manager is when there is a problem. Gallup found that engagement increases when managers communicate regularly about expectations, performance, and careers.
- Prepare managers to recognize the emergence of CTs. Equip managers with credible information and tools (see “Intervention” below) to get ahead of the CTs.
- Establish standards of respectful communication. Free speech is a constitutional right, and we should vigorously defend it. However, we would not want our employees to use their hierarchical positions or the organization’s media platforms to state provable lies that might lead, perhaps indirectly, to harassment or violence. We ban some speech in the workplace, such as sexism or racism. Establishing CT policies that encourage respectful communication and limit bullying is appropriate.
We found isolated practices, but no structured processes for managing CTs. We propose a model that synthesizes CT research findings, conflict resolution, and dialectical behavior therapy. (See Figure 2 Intervention Process.) When CTs emerge, we found it best to meet with employees one-on-one. In groups, new CT topics surface faster than a leader can adequately explore. And in groups, the dynamic can become more about winning than understanding.
Figure 2: Intervention Process
- Be humble. The literature shows that at least half the population believed or currently believe in some form of a CT. On that basis, we can empathize with conditions that produce them and their effect. Strands of truth can make a conspiracy seem plausible. In our example above, it may be true that the company sold assets, and that there were multiple meetings with participants the employees did not recognize. Appreciating employees’ mindsets makes it easier to intervene.
- Check emotions. When managers feel threatened, or a CT seems too ridiculous to discuss, we may find it difficult to engage in peer-to-peer, collaborative dialogue. Employees may perceive managers as condescending and dismissive.
- Be patient. Challenging a CT may require multiple conversations. Even so, we may never convince those holding the beliefs. Finding accommodations that respect differences while protecting the organizational culture may be difficult and frustrating.
- Express empathy and respect. Seek common ground. Acknowledge the frustration you share with a situation or how you are experiencing current conditions. Avoid emotionally loaded words like “debunk” or “deny” or “refute.”
- Validate what’s valid. Another way to access and express empathy is to find something valid in what the other believes. You do this without acknowledging that the conspiracy theory is true or agreeing with actions taken. Consider this example: Without understanding how the FDA tested and approved the vaccines, it is reasonable for someone to question the safety of the vaccine.
- Ask and actively listen. Inquire respectfully about the conspiracy. Listen without interrupting. Ask for details and opinions. Confirm the accuracy of your understanding. Ask about sources. How did they learn about the conspiracy? Consider creating opportunities for employees to talk one-on-one following the example of Europe Talks (see Europe Talks Sidebar).
- Once you earn sufficient trust, respectfully challenge the CT. (See Sidebar 2: Fact Check and Table 1: Exploring CTs.) Challenge the person’s logic. How do the individual strands of truth weave into a single, comprehensive explanation? Reveal inconsistencies. For example, you might say, “Over the years, I’ve seen you perform many thoughtful, caring actions for fellow employees. Many of these employees believe wearing masks protects their health and, ultimately, those they love. Whether you believe the masks are effective or not, wouldn’t wearing a mask express the same care you express in other situations?”
Seek a Shared Higher Purpose
Step back from the debate. Find common ground. This tool is more than agreeing to disagree. Doing that often leaves both parties dissatisfied, the conflict unresolved. What interests or purpose do both parties share? What are both parties passionate about that overwhelms one party’s need to be right, the other wrong? Examples include,
- An enduring friendship. Cite examples of shared experiences—trials endured together or joyful memories.
- Shared interests. Point out examples of the interests shared. Propose that you shift attention to those shared interests and away from your differences.
- Love of family. Both parties love their families and, through their work, seek to provide the best possible life for them. Working together, rather than against, may contribute to both achieving the purpose of their work.
- Shared values. To what moral, religious, or community values do both parties share a deep commitment?
- Shared higher purpose. What brings meaning to their work? Examples include: caring for co-workers, enabling others to be successful, being effective leaders, and in other ways making a difference through their work. How would setting aside differences enable both to make a difference through their work?
This article’s authors set aside their political differences for a higher purpose: their desire to reduce CTs’ threat to employee experience, safety, and well-being.
With a few notable exceptions, CTs in the past were relatively harmless. With a nation-wide pandemic and deeply-divided population, the CTs can, in fact, be deadly. Management must establish clear processes and policies to guide employees in dealing with CTs. Through the tools of recognition, prevention, and intervention, we suggest practical ways for managers to address the risks and challenges associated with CTs.
Sidebar 1: Europe Talks
Sidebar 2: Fact Check Sites
Table 1: Exploring CTs