Conspiracy theories: Why we align with them & how to manage them at work

You might well flinch at the use of ‘we’ in this headline

Conspiracy theories: Why we align with them & how to manage them at work

by Alice Bowerman

You might well flinch at the use of ‘we’ in this headline. You might even punctuate this reflex with the insistence that you would never buy into conspiracy theory nonsense, and that anyone who does is paranoid or foolish. It’s all too easy to ridicule the person who believes that COVID-19 is a hoax, or that the former President Trump had malevolent forces to contend which far outstripped the threat posed by the Democrats. And while there is evidence which links a tendency to subscribe to these theories with delusional thinking and schizotypy, the motives behind a colleague’s tightly-held belief are slightly more complex, and aren’t exclusive to the QAnon supporters or “experts” on YouTube.

Some are born out of the way we as humans cope with severe disturbances. The teammate you never suspected would fall for a ludicrous claim involving 5G masts has also never lived through a pandemic, so how could you accurately predict they ‘didn’t seem the type?’. Other considerations involve deep-seated elements of a person’s temperament and outlook, so it may come as less of a surprise when the office cynic immediately sides against the mainstream.

Once we understand how many ingredients there can be to the conspiracy theory cocktail, we can begin to appreciate how tricky it is to bring someone in the workplace ‘round to reality’, or question whether we even should. Everyone is entitled to their views and beliefs, but if they breed mistrust, fuel anxiety, or otherwise create a toxic working environment, then they need to be checked. There is no one size fits all way of approaching this dilemma, but in preparation, we’ve noted some of the prevailing factors which may spawn a kooky view.

Factor 1: Personality

Josh Hart, associate professor of psychology at Union Collage found through research that people who are susceptible to believing conspiracy theories tend to be, “more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place. […] They are also more likely to detect meaningful patterns where they might not exist. People who are reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories tend to have the opposite qualities."

If you know someone in the workplace who is the first to see a positive company update as smoke and mirrors, or is always talking over everyone in the team meeting, you might be seeing some of these personality traits in action. Conversely the colleagues who are humble in what they do, or always the first to offer to lend hand, are much less prone to buying into, or pitching, irregular ideas.

The person who is frequently venturing into another world altogether to ratify their explanations could be displaying characteristics of schizo-typal personality disorder, placing them in our typical view of a conspiracy theorist. While this stereotype is supported by many studies which suggest a link between conspiracy beliefs and delusional thinking, it’s not a prerequisite, as the wide adoption of various theories throughout history has shown.

The untrusting type

Honest, regular communication breeds confidence and trust at a time when it would be easy to fall into conspiracy theory rabbit holes that revel the opposite. Those who are vocal in their mistrust are a potential hazard in the workplace, as they can create a sense of unease among others and possibly even lead to a higher turnover of staff as a result. Creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable in raising concerns leaves less room for paranoia and rumour. If you don’t hear the “theory” from the originator, it won’t be long until you get the apparent scoop from someone else.

The self-centred type

Don’t allow those who like to take centre stage to do so too often. As a manager, you can make space in and among your direct reports to ensure that everyone is heard, and nobody’s ideas are disrespected. If you’re having to act as a mediator in controversial discussions too often, with one person clearly having their say more than others, it’s time to suggest that the topic is “off-limits” in the workplace.

The borderline personality disorder

In 2018, a woman in New South Wales Australia took action against employers who forced her to take sick leave on the grounds of her mental health, after she expressed opinions on aliens as fallen angels, and a number of other ‘out there’ philosophies. Beliefs such as these do feature in schizo-typal personality disorder, but it’s not up to you to diagnose a member of staff. Someone who is eccentric in their views is unlikely to rub off on other members of the team or cause any real issues. If there are other behaviours which are giving greater cause for concern, it’s acceptable for a manager to address these either directly, or through HR.

Those who have spent time dissecting the origins of conspiracy theories where never in any doubt that the chaos of 2020 would provide fertile ground for dangerous ideas to flourish.

When threatened by something we don’t understand or have very little control over, we’re more vulnerable to concepts that allow us to reject existing information in favour of a narrative that places a person or organisation behind it.

As Josh Hart explains, “...if you are the type of person who looks out at the world and sees a chaotic, malevolent landscape full of senseless injustice and suffering, then perhaps there is a modicum of comfort to be found in the notion that there is someone, or some small group of people, responsible for it all. If 'there's something going on,' then at least there is something that could be done about it." In any case, even if the alternative is worse than the reality, as with the anti-vaccination propaganda, those who buy into it have chosen to do so. In that sense, they’ve regained some element of control as the existential rug is pulled from underneath them, even if they do feel worse as a result.

How to compensate for a lack of control

In exploring how people view control, Harvard Business Review found that those who focussed on achieving aspirations, or who in other words have a “promotion-focused mindset”, are less likely to be misled by conspiracy theories. This is compared to those with a “prevention-focused mindset”, who are intent on protecting what they already have.

The latter is more inclined to place blame, whereas a promotion-focused mindset senses greater control in shaping their own future. Creating structure, clear objectives, and achievable goals can ensure that employees know what is expected of them, and how they can get there, giving them a greater sense of control within their working lives at least.

Providing plenty of opportunities for ideas, collaboration, and feedback will give employees even greater authority and a sense of purpose.

Factor 2: Rationale

How is it that one person catching a virus from a bat has cost well over two million lives around the globe? It’s almost beyond belief, and there is a desire, or what one research paper describes as an “epistemic motive”, to create a cause that matches the magnitude of the outcome, when the real source seems too meagre or random.

Dr Daniel Jolley, a social psychologist and senior lecturer at Northumbria University in the UK explained in an article that big events were “one of the key ingredients of a conspiracy.”

“Something mundane doesn’t require a conspiratorial answer. In psychology, this is what we refer to as proportionality bias. A big event must be explained by something equally as significant,” he says.

How to navigate the new rationale

Those who have wandered off track with the help of the internet to gain a better understanding to something they find unfathomable, will probably work their way back when more information becomes available. Others may be so entrenched in their views you might have to agree to disagree to save your breath.

However fleeting, a belief can have strong associations with a person’s identity, and rallying against it can be interpreted as a personal attack. If you do want to broach the subject, try putting yourself in their shoes to soften your approach. Just as you might think they’re delusional, so they may think the same of you. Instead of reeling off the facts and telling them they’re wrong, try the psychoanalytical tact of asking questions to understand their position and how they reached it, showing that you’re listening to them as they explain.

They might even come across a contradiction or lack of motive in their explanation which debunks their theory, in which event you should refrain from gloating. Whether they feel relief or shame at this revelation, they’ve likely invested a lot of emotional energy into their belief, so show some compassion if you can. In these times, whatever your role, it’s important to stay grounded, even if it seems others around are not so. To be a good manager, a compassionate colleague, or a level-headed member of the HR team, you too need to accept what’s within your control, and what isn’t. There are few occupations which depend on you to seeing eye-to-eye on everything, after all.

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