Gossip is a fairly common occurrence in the workplace and in society in general. There are several evolutionary theories that propose gossip may serve an important function. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that gossip spreads social information, cultural learning and societal norms. Indeed, gossip can initially seem like a bonding form of communication. There is even research that shows low level gossip actually brings a team together (which proves you can find research to pretty much argue any point of view). While this may be the case for neutral or positive gossip, when gossip turns negative it can have a very different outcome. Engaging in negative and damaging gossip can also be difficult to resist. It is similar to when you are trying to be healthy and someone brings a box of donuts into the office – they look so tempting, everyone else is joining in and at first it seems like fun. What harm can it do? Before you know it you’ve eaten 3 Krispy Kremes and are feeling disgusted with yourself. Gossip works much the same way.
In the long term negative gossip is extremely destructive to both individuals and teams. When it becomes a norm in a workplace then it very quickly destroys trust, kills morale, creates divisions and leads to a toxic culture. If you want to work in a culture that does not promote negativity and hurtful gossip, then you need to be aware of when gossip crosses the line, so it can be addressed quickly.
How to Spot Harmful Gossip
Gossip may seem like it would be very obvious to spot, but in reality it can easily sneak up on you. What seems initially like harmless conversation can quickly turn into hurtful gossip in the blink of an eye. Generally gossip is harmful when it includes the following:
An overall negative perspective of someone or someone’s actions: especially when it is undermining, embarrassing or belittling.
When it is about a topic that should remain private: Unless someone has made it explicitly clear that the information is public knowledge then it should remain confidential. It is not anyone else’s story to share.
When it involves speculation and rumors, especially negative ones: The only Rumors we should all be engaging with is the Fleetwood Mac Album (I know it’s an old one, but they put a lot of time and energy into it, so we should still keep listening – plus it’s really good).
Attacks on someone’s character: It can be so easy to take an isolated incident and turn it into a negative judgment on someone’s character. For example, ‘that person is just lazy’, ‘they don’t care about their job’, etc.
Anytime a sentence starts with “I don’t like to gossip but…’ or ‘I don’t like to be mean but…”: In my experience people who make these types of statements do really like to gossip and they do like to be mean. Just because someone explicitly states they don’t like it, doesn’t mean that’s not exactly what they’re doing.
While it may be that people often gossip as a way to form connection with another person, it actually typically has the opposite effect. When someone engages in negative gossip then it sends a clear message to others that they are not someone who can be trusted. Furthermore, studies show that when someone engages in negative gossip about another person, later on people will clearly associate the negative perspective with the gossiper, but not the person they were actually talking about.
Responding to Gossip
If a co-worker or even your boss has a tendency to gossip then it can be more difficult to address, but that doesn’t mean you need to join in. When you are in a Supervisory or Leadership role, however, then you have an obligation to not just ignore gossip. Ignoring it sends a clear message that it is acceptable and then it quickly becomes a workplace norm.
Set Clear Expectations: Set out your expectations clearly to the whole team about the kind of workplace culture you want to create. One where communication is respectful and hurtful gossip is not tolerated. It doesn’t mean that no one is allowed to chit-chat or that people can’t talk about non-work related issues, just that it can’t be mean-spirited.
Encourage Transparent Communication: Encourage open communication that is friendly, factual and honest. Avoid unnecessary cc’s in emails (and especially bcc’s). Work towards clear communication and active listening that fosters understanding, empathy and a non-judgmental culture. Encourage staff to feel safe going to people with concerns and bringing issues to people directly.
Get Good at Difficult Conversations: Get comfortable with having difficult conversations in a direct and respectful way. The conversation you are having behind someone’s back is often the one you most need to have with them. Make sure you are not simply putting off a conversation just because it might be difficult. For example, if you don’t know why someone did something the way they did, then simply ask them. If someone is not working the way you expect them to, then address it quickly and clearly. It is much more respectful to bring up concerns and address issues directly with the person than talk about them with other people.
Be a Role Model: As a Manager or Leader you have a clear responsibility to set the tone and lead the way in respectful communication. I especially like the idea in the book ‘The Four Agreements’ (by Don Miguel Ruiz) of the importance of being ‘Impeccable With Your Word’. This agreement focuses on the power that our words have and the significance of speaking with integrity and carefully choosing words before saying them aloud. As a Supervisor or a Leader, your words can have a lot of influence, so it is incredibly important that you use them thoughtfully and respectfully. For example, you are bound to have different relationships with the different people you supervise, but it is important to try not to talk about others to someone you supervise even if it seems like a way to build comradery. While initially this may seem to build trust with the person, it will ultimately have the reverse effect. People eventually start thinking in the back of their mind “I wonder if they talk about me too”.
Be Loyal to the Absent: Stephen Covey stresses the importance of building trust in the workplace and one of the most important ways he states you can do this is by ‘Being Loyal to the Absent’. Covey says ‘when you defend those who are absent, you retain the trust of those who are present’. Don’t talk about others who are not there and don’t talk for others who are not present. Always think when you are talking about someone if you would be comfortable with them hearing exactly what you are saying. As Covey says, “never say anything about anyone in their absence that you wouldn’t say in their presence.”
While gossip can sometimes be harmless fun, it often can be very destructive to building a positive workplace culture. If gossip is recognized quickly and measures are taken to respond to hurtful gossip then it has little power to destroy people and culture.
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people”.
Do you think gossip is harmless or harmful?
What are the most effective ways you have seen hurtful gossip addressed?
What other behaviors lead to a toxic workplace culture?
The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity – Kim Scott
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R. Covey