So I provide this story hoping that you avoid the trap I set for myself.
The gossip seemed at first pretty innocent. I was a new leader in an established team, and as I talked to my direct reports about the challenges of the day, naturally some complaints boiled up. Complaints about certain teams not delivering what they promised. Complaints about leaders not supporting our group. Complaints about some folks in our business not doing their work and not being held accountable.
It just seemed like they were answering the questions I asked, and maybe venting a bit. How can their opinion count if I don’t listen to it? How can I establish credibility if I don’t show a little empathy? I needed to know what people thought so I could help.
RIght. But there were other sides to these stories. There were often reasons why other leaders and teams could not do what we needed of them. Higher priority projects trumped ours. Key team members left and slowed delivery. The business conditions changed and a project and goal that made sense before no longer made sense.
But I continued to listen, to allow the venting. I describe the other points of view, to be sure, but to still be a neutral and fair sounding board, right? No really – because by allowing the venting I had taken the side of the person complaining. The venting was really gossip – it was uniformly negative, it was not being communicated to those it concerned, and it often concerned things that could not or would not change.
Mike Myatt, in his wonderful leadership blog, has a great definition of gossip:
“Gossip is talking about a situation with somebody who is neither a part of the solution or a part of the problem.” – See more at: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/workplace-gossip/#sthash.wHM8nNFN.dpuf – Mike Myatt
I began to realize that the venting and complaining was part of a long existing cycle of seeing others as the reason for our problems and – most damaging to the truth – speaking of intentions and motivations of others as if we know what they are. You have heard this kind of talk – Joe was critical in that meeting because he hates us. Susan submitted the report late because she doesn’t like her work. Mike withdrew his support of our project for political reasons.
The first casualty of gossip is the truth. Unverified and unknowable beliefs are spoken of as if true. Things we have heard third hand are passed on without checking to see if we got it right. Character assassination occurs with no particular attention to the facts.
Gossip is almost always negative, and it spawns an epidemic of negativity that will kill team moral. That is why the gossip occurs in private or small groups – because people know it is unseemly to say such negative things where others can hear. Gossip needs the dark to flourish, where there is no accountability for what is said.
Gossip is toxic to trust. Trust cannot exist in an environment of negativity and closed-door complaining. What people really think is whispered in the dark, not spoken in the open. Your team members can’t be confident that what is said in the open is truthfully what a person believes. And positive thoughts or opinions about you are fleeting and conditional.
I eventually saw the danger, and began to take action discourage it, but it was really difficult to change the negative, low-trust culture. Rebuilding trust and stamping out gossip takes time.
Here is a simple recipe for stopping gossip I learned the hard way:
Set a firm no gossip policy: Tell the team upfront what gossip is, that you will not tolerate it, and that you will hold gossipers accountable.
Gossip wilts in the light: If the person(s) the comments concern is (are) not present, offer to take the conversation to them. If that is not acceptable, then the comment is gossip. Are the conversations you are having behind closed doors professional, fair, consistent with your leadership brand? If not, END IT.
Move serial gossipers out of your team: some folks just cannot exist without the behind-the-scenes venting and complaining about others. They will suck the trust and life out of your team. Move them far, far away.
There are many great articles on gossip. One of the best I have found is Mike Myatt’s article: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/workplace-gossip/
1. The Danger of Wokrplace Gossip: http://www.careerstonegroup.com/z-media/wp-workplace-gossip.pdf
2. A thorough, rich piece on Workplace Gossip by Shelley Holmes: http://www.leadership-and-motivation-training.com/workplace-gossip.html
3. More on no-gossip policies from the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/jobs/15pre.html?_r=0