How to Deal with Gossip 6 Things You Need to Know
Leaders must have a plan to execute when there is gossip among the teams they lead. In my last article, Gossip in the Workplace, I shared a few principles to help us understand what gossip is.
In this article I share six ideas and steps I practice when it comes to dealing with gossip. I hope you will find them helpful.
Don’t ignore gossip.
It is difficult to stop the momentum of what you are presently doing to deal with gossip. We tend to ignore it because gossip is not typically an explosive event that requires our immediate attention. Rather, at least in its initial stages, it is a quiet progression that slowly erodes relationships and destroys teams. It is most often an insidiously growing cancer, with many outward symptoms in the beginning and a lethal end. Experience has proven to me that everything must stop, until gossip is dealt with swiftly.
Stop gossiping yourself.
Many times as leaders we engage in different forms of gossip ourselves under the guise of assessing problems with others. But we end up modeling poor behavior to our teams. Before setting out on a rampage to find the gossipers, stop and ask yourself honestly if you have engaged in unproductive conversations yourself. Remember, our bad behavior as leaders is mirrored to a much larger extent than our good behavior. You may be thinking this does not apply to you, and it may not. However, let me share with you how leaders gossip without even realizing it.
When a leader goes to one person on the team in an effort to find information about another and asks, “How is Julie doing?” that can be an invitation for gossip. “Julie is not doing so well, she always comes in late in the morning and is usually in a bad mood.” That communicates to the team member you talked to that it is permissible to talk about others and sniff out dirt and information, albeit for a good cause. Or, “Don’t tell Julie, but she is not doing as well as you, so you may get her slot.” Some may see this type of comment as encouraging or informing. But this is not good. In the past I have been guilty of these types of behaviors.
Another form of gossiping I have participated in is sharing information that is still a secret from the rest of the team in order to make some people feel included and valued. My intent may have been good, but the harm that comes from this behavior outweighs the benefits. This practice communicates to your team that it is alright to whisper, murmur, and handle matters under the table.
So why should we stop doing these seemingly benign behaviors? Because as much as we try to keep some matters private, everything has the potential to eventually be leaked. More importantly, even the mere appearance that we are engaging in gossip communicates our lack of commitment to honor people. And I hope you and I commit to always honor people.
I understand a lot of things must be done in secret in leadership, but secrets should be handled in such a way that if suddenly everyone in the world knew about them, your character and communication is above reproach.
Have mercy; gossipers believe they are not gossiping.
Now that I’ve established the dangers of ignoring gossip and encouraged you to examine your role in it, I want to talk to you about your attitude toward those involved before you address the situation.
It is human nature, even when we are doing something egregious, to make excuses for ourselves. Researchers claim that even the most heinous acts of violence come from a desire to do the right thing. At the time we are committing the act, we often think we are in the right. This is certainly true of gossip. If you approach someone with a reputation for gossiping and ask them if they think they are a gossiper, they will likely say no.
This is important because when we know this as leaders, we will approach these exchanges with a measure of grace. When we understand this, we can address the offense while still respecting the offender, and that will be needed in order for healing to occur. Acknowledging that others may not realize they are actually gossiping will also allow you to approach people and say, “Did you know, Tom, that sharing that information about Steve hurt him and the team? Revealing this type of negative information falls under the category of gossip, which is something I’m sure you would agree we should not have here.”
This perspective on gossiping gives you the opportunity to educate and inform Tom, not condemn him for being a person of poor character.
Bring gossip out in the open.
I learned this from Pastor Kevin Myers of the Atlanta mega-church 12 Stones. Bring everyone involved together and have them talk with one another. The point here is not to humiliate anyone. Often, it is simply a misunderstanding that needs clearing up. Most times when people are faced with the person they’ve been talking about, healing happens. Or in the least, the person knows that if this were to happen again, it will not remain under wraps, even harmless, mischievous, or fun conversations with my friends.
One complaint I usually receive when I do this is, “Shouldn’t some things remain a secret?” If it’s a trade secret, yes. If it’s a private contract, yes. If it involves people talking about others, no. Healthy societies and groups of people are marked by transparency. I love watching CSPAN when Congressional hearings are broadcast publicly for the whole world to watch. Totalitarian regimes and unhealthy relationships, on the other hand, are nearly always marked by secrecy.
Beware of strong emotions.
Meetings to confront gossip can quickly become emotional, as people often feel wronged. I have fallen into that trap several times myself. I got offended when I sensed someone was lying to me. High emotions in these confrontational settings can cause injury. While the leader’s demeanor needs to be serious, his approach should not be aggressive.
Sometimes potentially explosive exchanges prevent us from bringing people who are talking about each other into the same room. We should try to reduce the risk of eruptions by holding these meetings when people are feeling calm emotionally, and by talking to each person individually before the meeting to set expectations. Further, you can minimize a spike in emotions by setting ground rules of communication during the meeting with all parties present. We should not refrain from having these meetings just because they are uncomfortable. The alternative is more gossip, and that simply cannot be an option.
Help gossipers see gossip is not good for them.
Communicate to those who gossip that being unable to control one’s tongue is hurtful to them in life. One of our most important roles and privileges as leaders is to help people grow and have more successful lives. You and I know that when people gossip it will hurt them in the long run, regardless where and with whom they work. Bathe your approach with love, even when you are addressing problems.
Finally, while breaking the habit of gossiping is hard, I encourage you not to give up on people. Remember, if someone is unable to change in this area, they must be removed from your team. Gossiping tears one another down. Great teams are made of people who build each other up.
Let’s build great teams!
For Further Reading: