Frequent readers of my column know of my penchant for bouncing ideas off my friend Dave, a supervisor who lives in the Midwest. The other day it was Dave bouncing ideas off me. The topic? How to deal with an office gossip.
Seems an administrative assistant working in Dave’s office has decided it’s her mission in life to discuss the weaknesses of upper management—only not with upper management, but with everyone who reports to them. According to Dave, the woman’s demeanor is kind and concerned, yet at the same time condescending.
As Dave describes it, she puts on a professional smile while she’s gently stabbing people in the back, so most folks don’t realize the damage she’s doing. And, because she’s socially popular, people tend to listen to her.
This scenario was all too familiar to me. Years ago while working in San Diego, my boss’s daughter would often “help out” during the summer to earn money for college. There was something I didn’t like about her, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That is, until one day when she was talking with me as she walked behind me down a hallway. I could not see her face, I only heard her voice, and her words were terribly biting and demeaning regarding a fellow employee.
Shocked at what I heard, I turned around and questioned her comment. Her response was to look at me with feigned innocence and say, “but I said it with a smile.”
Unbelievable. I realized her “concerned” facial expressions were nothing but camouflage for her deep cutting words. It was then that I realized what I didn’t like about her.
The problem is that gossip can be very hurtful to people; even damaging to their careers. Sadly, this damage can occur whether the gossip is factual or not. Even worse, it can last a lifetime.
Simply stated, gossiping causes trouble. Yet it appears that human beings may be socially geared for gossip. So says psychologist Frank McAndrew, a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. McAndrew, who has published more than two dozen articles in scientific journals and is author of the book "Environmental Psychology," says "We can be moralistic about it and say only small people gossip, or people with nothing better to do. But I just think it's wired into us."
McAndrew believes that people used gossip in early civilizations to position themselves for higher status. He says “how successful you were at attracting mates and reproducing, depended, to a great extent, on your social skills and knowing what other people were up to.”
If that’s true, nothing seems to have changed much over the millennia. A recent survey conducted by the American Society for Training and Development found that 21 percent of workers admitted to “frequently” participating in gossip, with an additional 64 percent gossiping “sometimes.”
So if gossip is here to stay, how can we minimize its damaging effects? Several approaches are available and hold good potential. Here are just a few:
Educate people that their words become their future. Based on the principle “you go where you’re focused,” such education tries to help people see the ripple effects of how their focus impacts action. Negative focus creates conditions for ineffective and even detrimental choices.
To educate in this manner requires calling the issue for what it is, such as naming your workshop “the danger of gossiping and what you can do different.” By openly bringing the issue to the attention of everyone in the office, gossipers are more likely to feel the peer pressure and think twice before opening their mouth.
Another way to stem gossip is confronting the gossiper directly. More aggressive in its approach, here is where you can make it clear that the gossip has to stop. You can create a company policy on how gossip will be dealt with, and lay it on the line (it is entirely reasonable and legal to create a policy on gossip).
When addressing the issue head on, it’s a good idea to convey the hard truth that the gossiping has to stop or the person will be asked to leave.
Whatever approach you use, it is vitally important that we don’t just tell people what not to do. We must give them positive, constructive alternatives to choose instead of the gossip.
For example, people who notice negatives things are valuable people—their insights help others identify what needs fixing so that they or their operations can be stronger. Therefore, if gossipers observe a weakness or negative trait, they can be shown a reasonable, professional method for approaching the person who has the “observed weakness.” It’s never easy at first, but the processes can be established and put into practice, being modified as you go.
Many more solutions could be discussed than space allows, but the truth is that some people want to gossip. If we can’t stop it, we can at least try to redirect the motivation behind it.
This is no small issue. How an organization deals with gossip can be mean the difference between growing and thriving, or disintegrating from within.