Gossip is universal, and no one is immune to it. It is impossible to ignore gossip’s ever-present hold on human beings, and its presence in the workplace.
A 2019 study investigated how much gossip is part of people’s lives and found that the average person spends approximately 52 minutes a day gossiping. Other studies have supported how gossip may help us learn what is expected of us to be a good team member and what happens when we blur those boundaries. Past research has also supported that gossip, in some cases, can motivate the person to improve their behaviour.
In the book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Dr Robin Dunbar argues that gossip is a form of social grooming that can help social bonding amongst groups. At its worse, gossip can be used to further people’s reputations and interests at the expense of others. We all have seen the water cooler conversations, and at times it is hard to walk away from a juicy story.
However, when gossip permeates the company hallway, there can be a gradual decline of trust and morale, emotional drama disrupts work productivity, and anxiety and tension can be high as people walk on eggshells. Rumour mongering, outright lies, or sugar-coating gossip as concern can wreck careers, disrupt team cohesion, morale, and productivity. Spoken words can help or harm others. The way leaders and employees respond to gossip, either safeguard or erode workplace culture.
No one wants strained workplace relationships. No one wants to jeopardize their role or commit career suicide, and telling a colleague that you don’t appreciate hearing them talk about others behind their backs can be uncomfortable. On the flip side, remaining silent isn’t a solution as it can be interpreted as a form of endorsement. Being prepared to respond respectfully can help prevent a toxic work culture and reduce gossip in the workplace without creating resentment among your colleagues.
Here are some strategies that can help you curb gossip in your workplace:
1. Define the Difference Between Chit Chat and Gossip
People often confuse idle chit chat from gossip. Chit chat conversations hold neutral meaning as the discussions cast either excellent or bad aspersions on the subject matter. In contrast, gossip is often harmful, inflammatory, and embarrassing to the person being spoken of.
Gossip can be recognized by a few key traits:
- Unconfirmed reports presented as fact and reflect poorly on someone if they were true
- Negative or belittling dialogue about a co-worker with the intention to undermine them
- Attack on someone’s character
- Confidential information that has been shared without permission
For instance, a neutral gossip conversation may sound like – “Did you hear that Zoe was promoted to the Director of People and Culture? I look forward to hearing about her ideas about how we can collectively influence our culture. On the flip side, “did you hear that Zoe was promoted to Director of People and Culture? I heard that she only got that job because she is “friends” with the CEO.”
2. Refrain from Engaging in Gossip
Gossipers drive down rocky roads and often seek a travel partner. As the Turkish proverb says, “who gossips to you will gossip of you.” Under any circumstances, don’t get into the car. It is vital to communicate your discomfort being placed in this situation and what you would prefer to happen. At times gossip is sugar-coated as a concern, so disrupt the conversation requesting that the matters be shared directly with the person.
3. Disrupt Conversations That Morph into Gossip
There may not be a buzzer going off to reflect that you have entered the red zone. However, there are usually warning signs alerting you to the potential impact. By identifying the effects of gossip that most concerns, you may be enough to disrupt the conversation. By highlighting the personal consequences alongside communicating your intention to shield everyone from making a costly mistake fosters a different kind of communication.
4. Adopt a Sense of Curiosity
Asking questions to seek to understand, can avert danger. Instead of being sucked into what a gossiper is saying, ask the person to identify the purpose of them sharing the information. Posing a question requires them to self-reflect or shut down the conversation.
If you are not sure whether the statement is gossip, ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the purpose of sharing this information?
- Do the people who are hearing this information need to listen to it?
- Is the information likely to propagate conflict, negativity, or anxiety?
- Would the same conversation occur if the person were in the room?
Answering these questions will undoubtedly bring light to the truth.
5. Use the Socrates Triple Filter Test
The triple filter test refers to the great Greek philosopher Socrates as a lesson to deal with gossip and rumours. This life lesson can be applied within a work environment. The Greek Philosopher asked three key questions when approached about a story.
- Are you sure that what you are going to tell me is true?
- Is what you are going to tell me good or not?
- Is what you say about my friend is going to help me?
The philosopher refused to listen to the story and responded by questioning why they would want to be part of a conversation that held no truth, wasn’t good or useful. The foundation of the triple filter test is truth, goodness, and usefulness. It is a perfect opportunity to ask yourself the following questions before you respond to a situation:
- Am l sure that what I am going to say is true? Do l know for a fact that this information is accurate? Can l prove it to be true to anyone? Am l willing to compromise my reputation over this?
- Is what l am going to say a good thing? Does it benefit the other person or me? Will it make them better or me a better person and evoke positive emotions? Will the situation of those involved improve?
- Do I really need to say it, and is it useful? By knowing this message, will that person’s life or my life improve? Can that person take any practical action regarding this information or news? Will this information hurt or affect the other person?
By asking these questions, you set the parameters that represent healthy and constructive conversations.
6. Break the Cycle
Most people don’t realize that when you listen to a co-worker who is gossiping, you are a co-narrator to the gossip. By not removing yourself because you think you may be considered rude, you are signing up to support and promote gossiping. When you listen, the more you encourage it. If you choose not to attend, the gossip has nowhere to go.
How Leaders Can Help Minimize Gossip in the Workplace
As a leader in your organization, eliminating gossip starts with you. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask if you are someone who likes to gossip if even a little. Think about whether you chat about your boss, colleagues, or company policies. Are you leading by example within the workplace, and have you set the tone for people to follow?
Frequent and consistent communication with employees about the current positives and challenges minimizes the influence and need for gossip. When companies are transparent and authentic in their conversation, speculation and wonder tend to be reduced.
Discourage gossip in company policy; however, more important are the conversations you have with your teams about the standards and expectations. By leading conversations about what is negotiable and non-negotiable as a group, creates a space where people can challenge each other with permission to have a “gossip-free” workplace.
Be proactive. If you find yourself in the presence of a gossiper or know an employee to be a gossip, approach the individual to name the behaviour. Describe how the behaviour impacts others, not trusting them, and if the practice continues over time, then it can become a performance conversation as people and culture are being affected.
1. Hold Your Views to Yourself
If you want to get sucked into an inappropriate conversation with a coworker, openly share your thoughts on colleagues in the office, the rumour you heard about someone in your team, or spread your business around the office. Words of wisdom keep your thoughts to yourself or a non-work friend. Be selective about who you share within your workplace as you will attract unnecessary drama.
2. Discourage Secrecy
When you hear the words “I’m going to share something with you, but you can’t tell anyone”, run. If you think those thoughts, step away before your mouth delivers. Once the floodgates are opened, the damage is done. Being consciously aware of training yourself to hear when gossip comes your way, provides an opportunity for you to step away or divert it. If a co-worker approaches you with the famous words, that must be your cue to respond with something like, “well, you probably shouldn’t tell me then.”
3. Dismantle the Captive Audience
It can be super awkward to cut off your co-worker, launch into your script of non-engagement, or graciously walk away, however changing the subject can be a great tactic to interrupt the flow of conversation. Lead the discussion to safe waters by changing topics.
4. Hold Information in the Vault
Even with the best of intentions, you can get caught in the middle of a challenging conversation. Also, if you are self-aware to identify trigger words, mastered changing the subject, you may still find yourself privy to information that you should know nothing about. It is at these times that you must file the information in the vault and carry on with your day.
When Leaders Need to Intervene
The key is to be aware when gossip crosses the line, and you need to act as a leader. When conversations disrupt the workplace and the business of work, hurt employee’s feelings, damage interpersonal relationships, or injure employee morale, then it is time to act. When leaders ignore damaging behaviours, gossip tends to become a negative aspect of your work culture. Companies become known for leaving negative chatter unaddressed. Employees negatively talk about co-workers, and bullying behavior takes form.
When you find yourself needing to remind someone not to gossip, remember to confront the issue, not the person. As a leader, you can adopt a coaching approach to support employees to become more self-aware and improve their behaviour. If discussions about behaviour do not effect change, then a process of performance needs to be initiated.
Stopping Workplace Gossip
When approaching gossiping behaviour, it is crucial to facilitate a conversation about the action instead of the person behind them. By contacting the gossiper and stating, “you are a bad person” starts a very different conversation to “I am concerned about the gossiping that you do, and I would like it to stop.” It provides an opportunity for the person to self-reflect and chooses a different pathway.
The level of drama you have in your workplace and the amount you tolerate can impact the performance and success of your company. By companies investing in courageous conversations of naming gossip for what it is, managers and teams can effectively respond by addressing the real issues, and workplace culture can be protected and supported.
As a leader, you must understand how to stop office drama, including gossiping, by designing a culture that promotes transparent communication and drives self-accountability. Leaders, your words are important, but your actions speak volumes.