Leadership Steps to Stop Spread of Conspiracy Theories



Conspiracy theories have become part of our everyday lives, in most cases they look like any other content in your social media feed. The pandemic has created the environment for these theories to take root in ways they haven’t before. 

Let us look a little deeper:

  • A quarter of Americans believe in the theory circulating online that powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak. 
  • A number of current congressional candidates publicly subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory. 
  • Madonna recently had a post removed by Instagram in which she supported the theory that a coronavirus vaccine exists but is being concealed. 
  • A columnist for the UK’s leading liberal newspaper wrote about how college educated, middle class friends were sending her copies of the conspiracy video, ‘Plandemic’. 

This is just some of the information that has been propagated in recent months, and like with COVID-19, no one is immune. To underline the point still further, research found no innate correlation between conspiracy theories and political orientation. Everyone is at risk, you, your employees and by extension your company. 

A July essay in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) argued that anyone is susceptible to conspiracy theories. All it takes are the right conditions and those required conditions look much like the world in which we are living.

Experts agree that the psychological elements that give rise to conspiracy theories are powerlessness, anxiety and uncertainty, building a rising sense in people that they are losing control of their life.

To replace the disintegrating structures of home and work, they look for illusory patterns in the world around them to reduce the sense of randomness and disorder. 

These theories cause real harm, according to the HBR researchers, including:

  • Undermining trust in established organizations
  • Distrust of science and tested solutions
  • Destructive behavior such as embracing unproven medical treatments
  • Confrontations with more skeptical colleagues, family and friends

So, what can you do to prevent the rise of interest and belief in conspiracy theories in your organization?

Inspired by studies that test correlations between lack of control and openness to conspiracy theories, the HBR authors suggest strategies for leaders to increase a sense of control to prevent team members resorting to conspiracy theories:

  • Create structure: In these chaotic times, leaders should strive to create structure by engaging in open conversations and setting clear expectations. This helps your team interpret their immediate environments and stay oriented though a crisis.
  • Use promotion-focused language: Emphasize the things that people do have control over and can proactively influence their own situations. While it is tempting to force people to follow scientific or common-sense guidelines, messages which make people feel powerless and take away their choices often backfire, unintentionally weakening their sense of control and make conspiracies more appealing.

The experts also had advice for us as individuals to increase our sense of control and reduce susceptibility to wilder interpretations of events:

  • Understand what is — and isn’t — in your control: Research shows that understanding your locus of control can help avoid feelings of powerlessness. Try visualizing three concentric circles: the smallest is what you can control directly, the next is what you can influence, and the largest is what is out of your control. Direct your focus and effort to the areas where you can experience more control and influence.
  • Embrace Complexity: Conspiracies are appealing because they offer the simplicity of a “single story” in contrast to our messy, nuanced reality. Becoming more comfortable with complexity will prepare us to better understand and cope with the challenges of real life. 

Why should you care? 

Aside from being a source of workplace confrontation among co-workers who are supporters and skeptics, conspiracy theories thrive on propagation and sharing on social media. 

How individual members of your team behave on social media, and the content they share, reflect on your organization and your brand, even if they are not posting as your employee.

We are talking a lot in this blog about the rising levels of psychological distress in the workplace during the pandemic. Strategies which provide firewalls to prevent the rise of conspiracy theories is one more area where leaders can help team members through a difficult and unsettling period – and further protect your organization’s reputation.

Learn how hundreds of organizations large and small are using our award-winning crisis management platform, In Case of Crisis, to better prepare for and respond faster to emerging threats.