The COVID-19 pandemic and a rapidly changing international political scenario are not the only factors that led to spiralling conspiracy theories, particularly on media platforms such as Telegram. 

On the surface, it may seem rather bizarre to connect workplace bullying with conspiracy theories. However, new research indicates that employees who’ve experienced bullying in the workplace have a stronger propensity to entertain conspiracy theories.

A social research study spearheaded by the University of Nottingham suggested that victims of workplace bullying, driven by paranoia, conjure up conspiracy theories that subconsciously support their feelings of fear and insecurity.

Conspiracy theories in the workplace context 

During the COVID pandemic, many conspiracy theories took hold, gained traction, and spiralled, especially around the subject of vaccinations. Similarly, in a work environment, conspiracy theories can mobilise employees in the wrong way and prove detrimental to a smooth-running organisation.

Conspiracy thinking doesn’t only exist in the wider society – it can form and flourish even within the confines of a small workplace.

Researchers suggest that bullying in the workplace results in a deep distrust of authority and that the feelings of paranoia are further fuelled by a sense of disempowerment. People who are bullied or experience workplace hostility are more vulnerable to misinformation.

During difficult times (such as the COVID pandemic), people look for ways to cope, and conspiracy theories can become an unhealthy coping mechanism for victims of bullying. They may provide an avenue to mitigate the effects of a person’s insecurity, disillusionment, and sense of isolation from others.

Bullying victims – who often feel disempowered – develop a false sense of control when they seem to get answers to complex questions. When they share their conspiracy theories, it also gives them a sense of community and a perceived sense of selfimportance.

Dr Daniel Jolly, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Nottingham, explains that believing conspiracy theories is one of the many adverse effects of workplace bullying.

The victims conjure up fantastic scenarios in which they imagine influential people manipulating circumstances with malevolent intent. Conspiracy theories can appear benign, but managers and team leaders should not dismiss these as harmless rumours and gossip, as if left unchecked, conspiracy thinking can corrode trust and impact collaboration.

Conspiracy theories in hostile work environments

Conspiracy thinking thrives in organisations where employees feel vulnerable, insecure and uncertain about the management’s motives. For example, an employee who has been bullied will find it easier to imagine that the manager conspired to hire someone else for the role, or purposely plotted to remove a team member.

If an employee conjures up conspiracy theories, it’s likely that they’re already less committed to the organisation and may show a greater willingness to leave. It’s essential to drill down and gather information about how the conspiracy theory came about and why. By doing this, leaders can prevent misconceptions and false ideas from being propagated among employees. Getting to the root of the problem helps managers develop ways to tackle it.

Effect on morale

A conspiracy theory in the workplace involves the same elements as a conspiracy in the real world: a secret plot, a set of conspirators, supposed evidence, and false inferences that suggest that nothing happens by accident or coincidence.

Conjuring up and communicating conspiracy theories has several detrimental consequences on employees and the organisation. It shows a deteriorating ability to think in a rational and coherent manner and fuels misinformation based on stigma, rumours and falsehoods.

Workplace conspiracy theories eventually divide employees into supporters (believers) and outsiders (non-believers), destroy informal social networks, impair collaboration, and result in reduced optimism. Apathy becomes the norm, and customer complaints eventually increase. Overall, employees become disengaged.

A harmonious, cohesive, and collaborative workforce is much less likely to witness bullying, and employees are also less likely to spin conspiracy theories. Considering that people spend most of their time at work, tackling workplace bullying is the first step towards preventing conspiracy theories from spiralling.

Tackling the root problem

Taking proactive steps to tackle and minimise instances of workplace bullying can help prevent the emergence of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories can damage the reputation of your organisation and stop valuable candidates from seeking employment.

The first step in protecting your workplace from the detrimental consequences of conspiracy theories is to ensure psychological safety. Employees should feel free to express their grievances and concerns without fear of repercussions.

It is important to communicate regularly with employees, and through diverse channels. You should hold frequent informal meetings, including one-on-one interactions with your team members, rather than communicating with your employees only when there’s a problem.

Managers can play a vital role in preventing workplace bullying, thereby stemming the spread of conspiracy theories:

  • Model the behaviour you expect from your employees: Be courteous, transparent, and respectful.
  • Look out for low morale, reduced performance, and increased absenteeism.
  • Respond quickly to bullying claims, implement unbiased investigative procedures, and maintain confidentiality at all times.

Conspiracy theories spread rapidly and diminish positive feelings, including trust, while increasing employee turnover.

Our experienced consultants at ESN develop customised interventions according to your organisational needs. We provide thorough, unbiased assessments and excel in handling complex interpersonal human resources and psychological issues in the workplace.

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