When Sarah returned to her business after a rejuvenating vacation, all she heard from her employees were grumblings about one another. Apparently in her absence, there had been a lot of gossip flying around the office. Her administrative team griped about the new operations manager being unavailable and not answering his phone as promised. When Sarah asked him what had happened, he then complained about someone on the admin team being late for work every day that week.
Like school-aged children blaming each other for every real or imagined slight, the more time she gave them to gossip about one another, the longer the list of grievances grew. What she didn’t hear about was what business got completed while she was away, or if the latest contract was going well, or how the new intern was working out. Frustrated, and with her confidence shot, she seriously considered firing the lot of them.
One workplace issue that can waylay even the best teams is gossip. What may seem like harmless chitchat can actually put your organisation’s teamwork, professionalism, and effectiveness at great risk.
Psst … pass it on!
So why do people do it? First of all, it’s interesting. It can add a little drama to an otherwise uneventful day. Second, it can give us the sense that we know something others don’t, and that feeling can be empowering.
One of the main issues with gossip, especially around the lunch table, is that it’s more often conjecture than fact. It’s also an opportunity for people to voice their thoughts and opinions about current events in your company: “Did she really do that? What was she thinking?” or “Did you know, and can you believe … ?” followed by some juicy tidbit of information. By demonstrating superior knowledge, the gossiper gets a momentary lift by being the centre of attention. However, once the rumour mill gets going, it can be tough to stop, and comments taken out of context can negatively impact another team member’s reputation.
No-gossip ground rules.
To alleviate the temptation to gossip, talk with your team about the expectations you have for communication around the office. The more your team understands that a problem or challenge should be discussed directly with the person involved rather than with a group of coworkers, the less likely it is that things will turn into a gossip-fest.
At Strategic Coach, we actively discourage gossiping, and promote positive, proactive communication. If someone complains to a coworker about another team member, they’re strongly encouraged by that coworker to go to the person with whom they have the conflict. This way, the fire behind the gossip is quickly extinguished and the focus can be put on creating a solution that works for all parties involved. Keep in mind that in order for this approach to continue working, it has to be constantly refreshed and reinforced for new, as well as existing, team members.
One key distinction should be noted when it comes to gossip versus venting. Team members should be encouraged to vent by voicing issues with one another as long as they’re looking for feedback about how to handle a situation or brainstorm solutions. Gossip, however, almost always has a malicious undertone and tends to spread around an office quickly, usually being started by someone not interested in resolution. Empower your team to communicate effectively by creating a no-gossip ground rule in your organisation, and make it clear it’s everyone’s responsibility to enforce it.
Set a great example.
Gossip doesn’t only happen among coworkers. It happens between owners and their team leaders, between your employees and your clients and vendors, and even among your clients. While none of these are good, it’s gossip between your team and your external relationships that can do the most harm. Each reinforces the complaints put forth by the other, and since neither is telling you what the issues are, you’re left in the dark.
To deal with this scenario, first make sure you’re not contributing to a gossip culture by always keeping the lines of communication open. Reach out to your team, your clients, and your vendors to solicit their input. Be willing to listen to not only the positive feedback, but also the less-than-positive feedback. A great approach for how to deal with complaints, especially from clients, comes from Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller in their book A Complaint Is a Gift. The premise is based on the first thing you say when you receive a gift—“thank you”—and the idea that a complaint is just that: a gift to help your company improve. Even if you don’t enjoy hearing the feedback, you can appreciate the direct approach and know that everyone involved is genuinely interested in finding a solution.
It all starts with progress.
Focusing on progress, not perfection, with your team and your clients can also help take away the appeal of gossip. Nothing engenders gossip faster than getting to report on someone else’s mistake. But if you eliminate the thrill by treating mistakes and breakdowns as learning opportunities, you eliminate the gossip.
Another way to help your team easily and gracefully resolve their conflicts is to use The Experience Transformer exercise. This exercise offers a quick and easy way to work through the situation, to acknowledge what worked and what didn’t work, and to create a new and improved course of action.
Promote and practice solutions-based communication with your team, and watch how effectively this protects your company from the insidious influence gossip can have. If you haven’t already done so, work on a no-gossip ground rule and post it in the lunch or common room in your office. This sets a great example for your team and will inspire them to pass the next time the gossip train comes around.