It’s corrosive, and what I have long called a toxic behavior for a team. Gossip. It’s one of the worst workplace behaviors. It creates a foundation of disrespect and ultimately compromises the work.
And, at the same time, gossip is confusing.
Everyone, at face value, will likely agree that gossip is unprofessional and unhelpful. Also, the thought of any of us being the subject of someone's gossip conjures squirmy insecurity and vulnerability. Yet, despite knowing how bad gossip can be (even hurtful) many of us still engage in it.
Why? That's what we're tackling this week.
First, we have to understand it. That's the only way to take control of gossip. Then, we can all try putting into practice some of the strategies offered to create a better work environment for all.
What is gossip, why do we do it, and what’s the impact?
Generally, gossip is talking about someone when they aren’t present. Like this, it sounds harmless. How many times, then, have we “gossiped” when the context was benign like “Have you heard from Meredith? What’s she been up to lately?” It might also be positive such as “Did you see Manuel’s presentation? He killed it! What an amazing public speaker he is.” This type of talking about others is not a problem, nor is it the focus of this article.
What we’re talking about here is exchanging information with coworkers, about other coworkers who are not present, and there is a flavor of degradation. This means to take down or reduce that person’s reputation in some way. The information exchanged may or may not be true. Maybe it’s first-hand knowledge or its speculation.
The benchmark of whether what we’re saying is a problem is to ask, “Would the person I’m talking about be comfortable standing here listening to us talking about them?” If not, then we’re probably engaging in something, at best, sorta icky. At worst, hurtful and mean.
But why do we do it?
Peggy Drexler writes in Forbes that “throughout human history, gossip has been a way to bond with others—even a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.” It can build relatedness, which makes it so enticing to participate in. Also, we do it to confirm our feeling, prove we’re right, and get other people to think the same as us. Which points to gossip also reflecting intimacy or a desire for it. There is a sense of understanding felt when we gossip. Research has found it facilitates interpersonal chemistry and closeness. So, it feels good!
Gossiping feels good…to the gossiper. But would the target of the gossip feel good too? That’s the litmus test. If not, then there’s a problem. It’s probably then destructive to the team, department, or organization's dynamic.
Destructive gossip contributes to an erosion of trust, hurt feelings, decreased morale, damaged reputations, reduced personal and professional credibility, increased anxiety, divisiveness, and attrition. It no wonder that researchers have found that it negatively impacts employee mental health.
And who wants to be a part of that? The majority of us don’t. Here’s what we can all do about it.
Ways to Curb Destructive Office Gossip
First off, don’t hop on your Team’s channel, run down to the break room, or Slack the entire department to stop all gossip. It’s not possible nor realistic. Directives to halt gossip usually backfire and generate more gossip. Instead, if you’re in the presence of someone engaging in destructive gossip, try one of these strategies:
Call it out. Sometimes, just bringing awareness to gossip is enough to put a stop to it. Remember, we engage in gossip because it feels good, not necessarily because we want to intentionally hurt others. If someone starts it up, just say “Hey, this sounds like gossip to me. Is that the intent?” Once that word is floated into conversation, many people shift gears. You can also ask, "What are you telling me this?" That way it gives the speaker an opportunity to refocus on the work.
Give benefit of the doubt. The behavior and competence of others are common topics for gossip. Such as, “She is really abrasive and clearly doesn’t like her job.” Or “They are just clueless at running an efficient office.” If you hear something like this, be the one who explores the contributing factors that might be at play. Maybe “she’s abrasive” because no one taught her how to do the job or maybe “they’re clueless” because they’re really short-staffed. Most often, circumstances explain behavior rather than a person being inherently bad or incompetent.
Redirect the focus off the person and onto the work. Similar to above, pivot focus away from the person and onto the work. When someone starts gossiping about another, ask about the work. “What about the process is broken?” or “What goals aren’t being achieved here?” It’s ok to discuss frustrating job stuff, just make it productive by talking about the work and not the person.
Don’t engage in it yourself. This one is easy. Don’t be the one initiating destructive gossip. If you start to, catch yourself and ask that question “Would the person I’m talking about feel comfortable with me saying this in front of them?” If the answer is no, then stop or redirect.
Encourage honest, direct communication. This is good for teams. Instead of talking about each other, start a conversation about how to have direct and honest conversations with each other. Invite others to be direct with you. When they are, thank them for coming to you instead of someone else. This also applies if you disagree with the feedback or suggestion you get. (Which is tricky to respond to gracefully. See here for tips: How to Ask for Feedback and Receive It Well (Even If You Disagree with It)
By understanding what gossip is and the impact it has on the workplace, we can all play a role in curbing the destructive conversations. This is about creating inclusive and collaborative work environments, something we all want.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
Start advancing your performance today! Check out Productivity Training for Professionals or Leadership Training for Professionals from GPC Academy, the online training service of Growth Partners Consulting.