Imagine this scenario: You’re a manager, and you’re wanting to help a direct report with a conflict he has with another colleague. You listen to him vent about the other person, trying to let him “blow off steam.” He continues venting to you for several weeks, as the situation remains unchanged. One day, the colleague about whom he’s venting comes into your office and accuses you of talking behind her back.
Or, how about this one: You’re meeting with a customer who’s complaining about the new features of your product. He says he tried to give feedback to the product manager but got blown off, and he’s quite upset. Since this is your biggest customer, responsible for 60% of your unit’s sales, you attempt to create an alliance with him by nodding and smiling and agreeing that the product manager isn’t the best listener. As it happens, word spreads back to the product manager, and she’s furious that you didn’t have her back and were gossiping about her to a customer.
What do these scenarios have in common? You’re accused of gossiping, even though it wasn’t your intent to do so.
Gossip is corrosive in the workplace. It eats away at trust, undermines teamwork, and tanks morale. And in workplaces where gossip abounds, productivity declines because people are distracted by the drama, and they focus their energy on protecting and defending themselves from bad-mouthing and backbiting.
The funny thing is, as these scenarios show, people can gossip without being aware they are doing so. Maybe you’re just trying to help sort out a conflict or be supportive of a stressed-out colleague. But without intending, you’ve just gotten drawn into the drama, or taken sides in a conflict and created an even worse situation.
How do we know, then, what is and what isn’t gossip? Reflect on what, who, and why, and ask yourself:
- 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 sharing 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?
Here’s how it plays out in real-life scenarios:
- When you listened to your direct report continuously vent about his coworker, you were not discussing the right thing and, therefore, violated the “what” rule. Rather than redirecting the conversation onto your direct report, you spent time talking about the coworker. Instead, you should have asked him what she was doing to contribute to the poor working relationship, and what he was doing to resolve it. If he couldn’t make any progress, you should have offered to sit down with both of them to hash it out.
- When you agreed with your customer, you violated both the “why” and the “who” rules in an effort to keep a valuable contract. First, you gossiped to keep the sale—but a better “why” would’ve been to share your customer’s feedback directly with the product manager to make sure the product was successful. Chances are, if your customer doesn’t like a new feature, other customers don’t either, which can lead to a loss of sales. You also violated the “who” rule by talking with the customer instead of talking about the problem with the person who could actually do something about it (the product manager).
Gossip might feel like an inevitable part of workplace culture, but with a little self-reflection, you can help stop it. And as a leader, you must set the example yourself. As they always say, “be the change you wish to see in the world!” Your unwillingness to go along with gossip will have a positive cascading impact on your team and beyond.