Gossip at work: turning it into something useful

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Bev Flaxington

Bev Flaxington

We all like a good chat about our colleagues, don’t we? On challenging projects with big teams there is always plenty to comment about, from why so-and-so was late to work to whether someone else is doing a good job. I spoke to workplace behavioural expert Beverly Flaxington from The Collaborative about gossip, and how we can use it as a way to improve productivity and solve problems.

Beverly, how do you define gossip?

In my definition “gossip” is anything that employees use to talk about another person, or issue in the firm, that is detrimental or that couldn’t and wouldn’t be said directly to the person being discussed. For example, I don’t consider emailing my colleague to say a mutual friend in the firm is moving to another location as “gossip” if the friend would not mind me telling someone. That’s a fact about someone else and they are okay with the message.

Gossip is when I would not say it to the person, or would not want the person to know I repeated it, “Don’t tell anyone, but did you hear that Susie got passed over for the promotion?” Or, “I hear we are cutting back on our support staff. Management are idiots and don’t know what they are doing,” would be examples in my definition. Gossip includes when someone says something about another person and it is taken as fact without being checked out. None of us like to experience this.

So intent has a lot to do with it?

As a rule of thumb, if you are doing it with positive intent or the hopes of improving something – great. If you know it is negative, or someone would be upset, or the boss needs to know it in order to change it – find a more productive outlet for what you are about to say! It’s detrimental when issues that should be addressed cannot be because the discussion is all underground or purely negative. I call this “pinning Jell O to the wall”. When it’s back door and the people who could fix it, or address it, cannot do so, it will stay as Jell O – ever moving, ever changing and never pinned down.

We’d call that jelly over here, but we have the same expression. How can project managers work with their teams to stop time-wasting, negative gossip?

Have a clear plan of action. Who, what, when, etc. Circulate updates frequently. Get people in a room to discuss what’s standing in the way. Have open discussions about how the team is interacting and working together. I teach teams that it is as important to work on “how we will work together as a team” and plan that out, and check in on it, as it is to take the time to create the project plan in the first place. Assigning duties to people’s strengths, having open forums, assigning roles in the teams such as facilitator, recorder, etc. and setting ground rules for how we will work together can all help squelch negative gossip before it starts.

A lot of what is gossiped about is negative, though. How can we turn this around and use gossip productively?

The problem occurs because we know if employees are taking their time to gossip and talk about people and problems, that unless they are then reaching a resolution, it is detrimental to the business. It is a time suck and it can bring people’s morale and enthusiasm down. I believe smart managers CAN use gossip productively but most are not doing so. Many managers have the attitude that they don’t want to hear the complaints so the complaints go underground. We know they don’t go away, they just get expressed in a less productive forum.

Make your Shift

Beverly’s book: Make Your Shift

OK, so if our project team members have problems they feel the need to gossip about, we need to tap into those and resolve the gripes effectively instead of letting them fester. What’s the best way to come up with solutions to the problems that people gossip about?

There are 4 steps:

  1. Define what you want.
  2. Identify the obstacles (i.e. what they are gossiping about).
  3. Recognise what contribution (negative or positive) is being made by people gossiping and have them turn this into information to be used to solve issues.
  4. Brainstorm alternatives, get commitments, develop ground rules for how you will act together.

That sounds good. What’s your top tip for turning gossip into a trigger for action?

My personal favourite is having an agreement in the organisation that we can’t talk about a third party without them being there. So, when Sally walks in and starts complaining to me about how Ted didn’t finish his part of the project, instead of engaging with Sally, I call Ted and have a three-way conversation. “Ted, Sally has a concern that you haven’t completed your part of the project. Can we talk about this?”

Rumour mongering, unproductive gossip and backstabbing go away pretty quickly with this method. And real issues (like if Ted actually is holding up the project) can get addressed!

And we can’t talk about gossip without me asking this…is it true that women gossip more than men?

I think the form of gossip can be different but, in my personal experience, many men are worse than women! Men might not talk about how much weight a co-worker put on in her pregnancy or who the young guy in the back office is dating (although some do!), but they will gossip about people and job performance, about company rumours, about someone’s behaviour or lack of follow through, and many, many other things! And, many men will no more say something to a person’s face than many women will, so they use gossip as the outlet.

Ah, I knew it wasn’t just us! Thanks, Beverly!

Beverly Flaxington is a Certified Professional Behavioural Analyst (CPBA), hypnotherapist, and career and business adviser who specialises in helping managers and employees navigate through workplace behavioural issues. She is the author of four business and financial books including her most recent, Make Your SHIFT: The Five Most Powerful Moves You Can Make to Get Where YOU Want to Go (ATA Press, 2012).

  • Adrian Lee

    A long winded way of saying “Listen to people”…

    • http://www.otobosgroup.com Elizabeth

      Yes, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of that every so often!

  • kpkatz

    Gossip is what fills the vaccuum created by a lack of timely, authoritative and truthful information. So if leaders want to reduce gossip, they need to be the best source of timely, authoritative and ruthful information.

    • http://www.otobosgroup.com Elizabeth

      Absolutely – and also be able to say when they are not at liberty to share information at the current time.

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