Gossip in the Workplace How to Identify It and Eradicate It
Be impeccable with your word.
This is the first agreement outlined in Don Miguel Ruiz’ popular book, The Four Agreements. One way we break this agreement is when we gossip. But what is gossip? As leaders, we must clearly identify gossip and take a stand against it if we are to eradicate it. There is no quicker way to erode the cohesion of your team than to ignore gossip.
In this article I will share my thoughts on understanding and eliminating gossip.
I recently talked with a person on my team who had passed along negative information. When I asked why she was gossiping, she replied, “I was just trying to help.” And therein lies the problem and the key. When any of us do something bad, we rarely think it is bad. So we keep doing it. Because people tend to have a more lenient perspective of themselves, as leaders, we must approach gossiping with grace rather than rage.
What is gossip?
Gossip is sharing confidential, negative, or alarming information or rumors that have the potential to hurt other people or our teams. When we gossip, we typically feel we are sharing, socializing, warning others, or discussing so we can resolve or help. So how do we separate gossip from discussing, socializing, or helping?
If the information you share cannot be said in front of the person whom you are speaking about, there is a big chance it is gossip. Gossip sounds like this: “Did you see how Julie talked to John? So disrespectful.” Another form of gossip is passing on negative information, “Did you hear that we may be shutting down the branch?”
Many times the urge to share information is so great, we cannot resist it. But we must. While gossiping is cathartic, when the information passed from one person to another is misunderstood, misrepresented, or confidential, people get hurt. Trust is eroded, and teams simply get destroyed.
Are there advantages to passing on information?
One may legitimately ask, “Are there any situations where sharing confidential, negative, or alarming information about others is a good thing?” If I came to you and said, “Our friend John has a problem with drinking. He wakes up in the morning and starts the day with alcohol.” Is it actually a good thing for me to pass on this information?
If the information ends there, I believe it is gossip. Therefore, it is not beneficial, and it is potentially harmful to John and to our relationship. However, if I continue, “I would like you and I to go talk with him and help him get into Alcoholics Anonymous. How about tomorrow?” Now, this is helpful. So, if the focus of the conversation is action to solve the problem, one can argue that passing on information in a limited way can be helpful. However, passing on negative information often ends there, just being passed along for the sake of intrigue and excitement, but under the guise of “helping.”
We rarely help simply by sounding the alarm. And we definitely don’t help when we tell others something negative that another person said about them. “Did you know Steve thinks you are not doing a good job?” If we want to help in this situation, ask Steve to talk directly with whomever he has the issue. Do not share it.
Gossiping with the intent to hurt others is malicious.
When you intend to harm someone by gossiping, it is called malicious gossip. However, I believe the majority of gossiping does not happen with this overt intent for destruction. Many times when I talk to leaders about gossiping they say, “Well, they did not intend to harm anyone,” as if that gives the gossiper a free pass. Most gossipers don’t intend to harm, yet they harm greatly. If gossiping for the intent to harm is discovered on your team, I am certain you will find many other problems even more serious than gossiping. If people actually want to harm each other, you need to take swift action. You need to stop and assess everything about that team, as well as your leadership.
I have found most gossip is the result of people not having the relational discipline or the clarity of what is good and healthy to share with others. All gossip is harmful whether malicious or not. My standard as a leader is not to determine what is malicious gossip and what is not. My goal is to stop all gossip.
The recipient is just as guilty.
If someone comes to you and says, “I am not supposed to say this, but I am going to tell you. Can you keep a secret?” Stop them there. Most of the time I want to say, “Sure you can trust me.” But we must resist the temptation of wanting to hear that information. Simply ask the person not to share the information. Otherwise you are about to engage in gossip yourself.
Passing on what’s bad about others is off limits.
This is a lesson my mom taught me from a young age. My mom said that her mom taught it to her: Only pass to others the good things you hear about them. Keep to yourself what is bad. When we do this, we become peace-makers.
If John and David do not like each other, and I hear each separately say something bad about the other, I must not share it. What if they each say something good about the other? Share that. If someone says nine bad things about another person, and one good thing, share only the one good thing. My friend, when you do that, you will sow seeds of peace between those two people and promote closeness on your team.
Pass on what’s bad to the right person.
If you have an issue with a coworker you cannot resolve, don’t share it with another person on the team. Share it with your supervisor instead. Yesterday one of my staff members felt offended by another person on the team. She talked to that person directly. That is even better! She did not even have to share it with her supervisor. I was so proud of her. But if she couldn’t approach the other person directly, telling the right person—which in most cases is the person in authority over us—is the right course of action.
In my next article, I will share with you what you should do as a leader when you discover gossiping in your midst.
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