It’s Gossip, Even If You Don’t Know It

What workplace behavior rates as the most annoying and distressing?

Gossip.

Gossip comes up, again and again, as a central contributing factor to workplace toxicity.

Gossip is corrosive to workplace culture. It eats away at trust, undermines teamwork, and ultimately destroys morale. And in workplaces where gossip abounds, productivity declines because people are distracted by the drama, their attention diverted to conflict and to protecting and defending themselves from bad-mouthing and backbiting.

Why is gossip so pervasive?

One reason is that, as odd as this sounds, people don’t always know they are gossiping. While some gossip is malicious, intended to harm or discredit the target, there is also unintended and inadvertent gossip, gossip that flies under the radar. People can gossip without being aware they are doing so. With the best of intentions, to help sort out a conflict or be supportive to a stressed-out colleague, people get drawn into gossip, inflaming a conflict, and creating an even worse situation.

Consider these scenarios:

  • You’re a manager, and a direct report is very upset about a conflict he has with a colleague. Thinking it’s helpful to let him “blow off steam,” you listen to his problems and complaints about the other person. Nothing seems to help, even though you encourage him to work it out. He continues venting to you for several weeks, and one day the colleague about whom he’s venting comes into your office and accuses you of gossiping with your direct report about her.
  • Your friend, Caleb, has been missing from the weekly project meeting for two weeks. He’s got a critical role in this project, and his absence was unannounced and unexpected. You happen to know, because he confided in you, that he’s going through a messy and painful divorce. People are angry about his unexplained absence. Thinking that people will be more understanding if they knew, you try to help out by explaining to them that he’s going through a divorce. When Caleb finds out that you told them, he’s furious at you for sharing the details of his personal life.
  • You’re meeting with a customer who’s complaining about your product. She hates the new features, and tells you that she tried to give feedback to the product manager but got blown off. This is your biggest customer, responsible for 60% of your unit’s sales. Clearly she is upset. Attempting to create an alliance with her and keep her on board, you nod and smile, and agree that the product manager isn’t the best listener. Somehow word spreads back to the product manager and he’s furious that you were gossiping about him to a customer.

In each instance, you did what you thought best. Whether or not you meant to gossip doesn’t matter because it has the same negative effect on the workplace. It was seen by others as gossip — and for good or bad, perception is reality.

What qualifies as gossip?

How do we know, then, what is, and what isn’t gossip? Here’s how I help people distinguish gossip from not gossip. Ask yourself what, who, and why: 

  • What am I sharing? What am I listening to? Is it crucial to getting work done? Is it something I have to share or listen to because of my role or responsibilities? Will the person about whom I’m talking feel betrayed if I shared this? Is it something they asked me to keep confidential, or that my role prohibits me from sharing? Is there something else I should be talking about, something more important and useful to help the situation?
  • Who am I talking to? Is it someone who can help resolve or fix the situation? Is it someone who needs this information? Someone in a position to do something useful? Is there someone else, someone more central to the story, to whom I should be talking?

And most importantly,

  • Why am I telling this? Does it have a purpose or function beyond my own self-interest? Is it my role or responsibility to share? Am I sharing it because I need guidance or help? Am I sharing it to create an alliance, get revenge, or establish intimacy with someone for my own agenda? Is there some other, better way to solve this situation?

How would asking what, who, and why help the situations above?

Applying the rule

You listened to your direct report continuously vent about his co-worker and was accused by the co-worker of gossiping. What happened? You violated the “what” rule.

You weren’t discussing the right thing. You spent time talking about the co-worker, instead of redirecting the conversation onto your direct report. You should have asked him what he was doing to contribute to the poor working relationship, and what he was doing to resolve it. Where was he having trouble? Why couldn’t he resolve it? And if he couldn’t make progress, then you should have offered to sit down with them both to resolve it.

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You tried to help your friend, Caleb, by telling the group that his unexplained absences were due to his divorce. Caleb found out and accused you of gossiping about his private affairs. What happened? You violated the “who” rule.

You talked to the wrong person. Rather than tell the group, you should have told Caleb that the group was frustrated by his unexplained absences. You could have asked Caleb if he wanted you to let the group know the reason he was absent, or if he wanted to tell them himself.

Afraid of losing your biggest customer you agreed with her that product manager was hard to talk to. What happened? You violated both the “why” rule.

You gossiped in order to keep the sale. But a better “why” would have been to make sure the product was successful. You should have shared your customer’s feedback directly with the product manager. Clearly, if your customer doesn’t like the feature, there is a good chance that others don’t either, and a potential loss of sales.

In this case, you also violated the “who” rule because rather than talking about the problem with the person who could do something about it, i.e., the product manager, you talked with the customer.

As these examples show, gossip is prevalent because there are many different reasons people share information, and it’s not always evident — even to ourselves — that we are gossiping.

Gossip might feel like an inevitable part of workplace culture, but there are ways to stop it. To reduce the amount of gossip, it’s important we ask ourselves what, who, and why. What kind of information am I sharing? Why am I sharing it? Am I trying to help solve a conflict? Am I trying to keep a sale? Gain recognition or make friends?

Finally, don’t underestimate your influence. Set the example yourself. No matter what position or role you play, your unwillingness to go along with gossip has a bigger impact than you think.

Julie Diamond. Ph.D., founder and president of Diamond Leadership and author of Power: A User’s Guide, is an executive coach and leadership consultant based in Portland, Oregon.  Her company, Diamond Leadership, provides innovative leadership and talent development services, including coaching, consulting, assessment, and training to its global clients.

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