Gossip is something I’ve encountered at various times in my life. I am on a journey of learning. When I share about work situations and community items, the fact that they’re based on actual experiences is helpful. It provides me with empathy and understanding. I know how hard being in a leadership role is.
In studying recent employee engagement results and reading comments, it became clear there are signs of gossip. In researching materials on gossip, I found only one person who stated that some amount of gossip is healthy. The person noted that gossip shows camaraderie among the team; however, they went on to say that if it starts hurting someone’s feelings or impacting morale, the line has been crossed. I feel it is better to have no gossip at all.
My experience is that gossip has a negative effect in workplaces and communities. It prevents happiness and robs us (both individuals and the organization) of goodwill, peace, and serenity. This is true whether people actively participate in gossip or even listen to it. Listening is still participation.
Authors Nancy B. Kurland and Lisa Hope Pelled in an April 2000 article in the Academy of Management Review addressed some of the negative consequences of workplace gossip. They wrote that gossip results in:
- Erosion of trust and morale
- Lost productivity and wasted time
- Increased anxiety among employees without clear information as to what is and what is not fact
- Divisiveness among employees as people take sides
- Hurt feelings and reputations
- Good people leaving due to an unhealthy work environment
None of this is a surprise. Most people realize that gossip is a corrosive force. So why do people do it? My take is the following:
- For some people, passing along gossip helps them feel “in the know” or at least portrays that they are in the know.
- It helps some feel better about themselves. When they pass along something less than positive about others or a situation, it creates a sense of at least I am better thanthat person!
- Some rationalize that they are passing along information “for your own good.” They might say, “I feel you would want to know that so-and-so is getting the promotion you wanted.”
- For certain people, it seems to be built into their DNA. It is almost as if they were born gossiping about something. It is so natural, it can appear to be driven by something in their subconscious.
All that said, it almost doesn’t matter why people gossip. As leaders, we need to do all we can to eliminate the behavior. A few tips:
- Include in your standards of behavior that gossip is not acceptable. (Remember to have everyone sign the standards document. This makes the “rules” feel more official, and people are more likely to respect them.)
- Don’t let gossip pass, thinking it is just “one of those things.” Address it when you see it and remind people that it is not allowed. What is permitted is promoted.
- Be very aggressive in communication. Gossip can fill a gap when good communication is not present.
- Don’t fall into the trap of assuring confidentiality when someone says, “I need to tell you something, but I can’t tell you who I heard it from.” Clearly state that you cannot promise that. There may be things you hear that require action.
- Don’t allow people to be messengers for others. Insist that people carry their own messages.
- Don’t be a silent witness to gossip. Remember, listening (or even seeming to listen) counts as participation. Over the years, when someone would say something, I’ve made a practice of saying, “Thank you. Let’s call them.” This creates an immediate back-off. Another option is to ask, “Why is this important to you?” I like the statement, “None of your business means none of your business.”
- Be extra vigilant in making sure those in leadership role model behavior and are not part of the gossip chain. This may require some training.People don’t automatically know how to deal with gossip. Sharing the phrases in #6 might be a good starting point.
Our words are so powerful. What we say can tear people down or lift them up. Imagine what your workplace or community would feel like if everyone sought to manage others up and make them feel better about themselves rather than making negative statements about them behind their backs. It has never been so important to become a place that attracts the most talented people and makes them want to stay.