“Be careful who you trust, if someone will discuss others with you, they will certainly discuss you with others”
When researching this article, I read plenty of articles about how office gossip can be good for your career because it keeps you in the know and could even improve office productivity. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, author of “Gossip: The Inside Scoop”, says it can be good for our emotional health. However, he clearly delineates the toxic harmful type of gossip versus what he believes can be the type of gossip that ties together social and business networks. That said, even if there was NASA level backed research on this topic, I still believe office gossip can be one of the most challenging social pathways to navigate. In one recent study, the facts were somewhat alarming:
- 21% regularly gossip at work
- 15% occasionally gossip
- 86% gossip regarding corporate challenges
- Each gossip session averages 15 minutes
When employees spend hours per day together and vie for the same promotions and raises, competition it’s inevitable. So there is a clear divide. Some people are adamant that office gossip is an essential part of the workplace and a necessary skill to advance your career and generally be liked by others while staying in the know. The flip side to the coin is that gossip is readily seen as needless and potentially a lethal part of office culture that kills morale and strains relationships.
In case you weren’t clear on what constitutes gossip, here you go:
- False information
- Failure to correct false information
- Ridicule, belittling, and humiliation
- Leaks of personal and confidential information
- Failure to stop dissemination of unethical communication
Some people gossip because they enjoy it or they feel insecure about others in the workplace. Most gossipers are pure attention-seekers. A persistent and long-term gossiper must be stopped to avoid potential damage to others and the culture of a company. This article is solely focused on what you as an individual can do to protect both yourself and your career. Based on my research, here is an excellent list for you to reference to prevent your career and personal life from being damaged by rampant office gossip:
- Don’t participate.
Sounds pretty obvious but simply walking away from the story can prove to be your best answer. Don’t give visual clues that you are interested in listening and find a way to move on. If someone passes a juicy story on to you, don’t pass it any further. Take personal responsibility to act with integrity and start moving.
- Say something positive.
It isn’t nearly as much fun to spread negative news if it’s spoiled by a complimentary phrase about the person being attacked. Rather than say negative things about your coworkers or the person mentioned, make it a point to say positive things and turn it around. By all accounts, you will derail the gossip and potentially change the course of the conversation.
- Avoid the gossiper.
This is a no-brainer but as obvious as it may be to some, sometimes we forget we have the option to physically look to remove ourselves from situations (and people) that attract this type of behavior. It’s difficult to control workplace gossip, but you can control your reaction to it. If you notice one person who consistently makes trouble, take the necessary actions to have as little interaction with that person as possible. Avoid him/her as much as possible. The best defense is a great offense.
- Know what gossip is.
Friendly work banter and gossip are worlds apart. But how do you tell the difference? Consider the following:
Discussion: A friendly work discussion that talks about others keeps the references to other people general, friendly and supportive. The speaker is not obsessed with picking holes in another person’s character but is merely imparting information about what another person or people have done in a matter-of-fact way, to further an objective, work-related conversation and to enlighten the listener about work relevant information;
Gossip: Gossip tends to be talk that gains attention for the speaker. The speaker will often adopt a confidential tone and is using the information about somebody else to be the center of attention and will impart the details in a way that tries to undermine the credibility or likability of another person. The details may be given with moralizing undertones and character assassination may be the top of the gossip’s agenda. Often you are told more personal details than you care to know about. The motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation, exaggeration and a me-versus-them mentality;
Grapevine gossip: This is gossip pertaining to general change occurring within a workplace. Someone started it and now it is running about like wildfire. Usually this happens in an uncertain environment and is fueled by fear, poor communications from management levels and wild guesses by staff. It is less personal than gossip attacking another person but is as equally damaging and demoralizing.
- Keep your private life private.
It’s great to have genuinely close friends with whom you also work. You spend a good deal of time at work so it’s natural for friendships to develop. It might be best if your coworkers know enough about you to be able to have a friendly conversation, but not so much that any information they have could hinder your advancement. Consider implementing a “work friends” privacy setting on your Facebook page if you’d like to friend your coworkers on social networks at least until you feel you have built up a level of trust.
- Confront the gossiper.
If people who gossip about you believe that doing so brings no negative consequences, they have no incentive to stop gossiping. Conversely, if they know that you’re on to what they’re doing —and in particular, if you make your feelings known to them — you increase the chances that the gossip about you will stop. Not only will the gossipers get the message, but so will others who might be tempted to join in and gossip about you. View such people as attention-seekers and give them some attention within limits by hearing them out:
Inform the gossiper that you want to know what is really bothering them. Ask them why they are telling you the information (that you perceive as gossip). Forcing them to explain will cause them to realize that you have seen through their muckraking for what it is.
Inform the gossiper that you are prepared to follow up the gossip with the targeted person. This will let the gossiper know that the information is going back to the targeted party and the gossiper will likely retract or apologize.
Be positive and genuinely seek to assist the gossiper. Engage the gossiper in a conversation that lets them air their real grievances and be understanding but firm in your responses. Maybe they are peeved that they missed out on a training or promotion opportunity; maybe they are annoyed that the victim of the gossip has a special work deal or work hours that they also want to have. Dig a little deeper and see if there is a fair solution that can be reached.
Be realistic. If the gossiper sees your direct approach of fair discussion as threatening and refuses to be forthcoming in what is really bugging them, be firm in letting them know that the gossip must stop. Often confronting a gossiper in this direct manner is enough to alert them to stop; or they may choose to move on under their own steam. At the end of the day, however, it may be necessary to make it clear that gossip is not tolerated at all at work, to the extent of letting go of a person who persists in this behavior.
- Deal with the issue not with the person.
When you do confront someone who has been gossiping, you will come across far more professionally if you focus on the issue and behavior rather than on the person. For example, instead of saying, “You are a bad person for gossiping about me,” consider saying, “I am concerned about the gossiping, and I want it to stop.” This way of reacting makes you look better and more professional to anyone else who might hear about it, a fact that can help you politically.
- Refuse to be drawn in.
A good way of stopping gossip and rumors is simply to refuse to be drawn in. In other words, refuse to respond to comments about the absent person with more comments about that person. Even better, try to change the subject subtly. For example, the next time someone gossips about your co-worker Tom, try bringing up something about Tom’s child, perhaps with regard to something that child has in common with your own child. Then, begin talking about the children and their common activity rather than about Tom. Most likely, the group will not even notice that the gossip has changed to something else.
- Focus on solutions not problems.
Much gossip arises when a group of workers is concerned about a particular problem. If you sense that the conversation in your group is headed toward complaining or gossiping, remember the old adage “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Instead of joining in with the complaining, simply ask the group what anyone thinks might be a solution. Of course, the group might not be able to come up with an answer. Furthermore, the boss might not go along with whatever the group comes up with. However, the exercise of focusing on solutions will take away from the urge to gossip.
- Stay Focused.
Don’t get drawn into the drama. You were hired to perform certain duties, so focusing on doing your own job well should take up most of your time at work. If you indulge in gossip or other bad behavior, you will not only get sidetracked from accomplishing your professional goals, you’ll also get a reputation for being negative. Think of a racehorse that wears blinders to stay focused and win the race. When it comes to your job, wearing blinders to keep you from being distracted by gossip and unprofessional behavior can only help your chances of success.
- Don’t take work gossip to heart.
A lot of work gossip is just that – gossip. It is filled with innuendo, rumors, errors and even deliberately malicious nonsense. Take it with a pinch of salt rather than reacting personally or defensively. There is no doubt that gossip must be dealt with strongly and immediately but it will not help your situation as a team leader or colleague to take it personally. Focus instead on the reality that there is an underlying reason or series of reasons causing the gossip and focus on dealing with it objectively as a task rather than as a personal attack to be foiled in an emotional or angry manner.
- Arm yourself with the facts.
Is there truth to the tall tales? Sometimes there is a kernel of truth and this should be uncovered before addressing the problem so that you are well placed to respond with facts rather than emotions. This is especially important in relation to change management gossip where wild ideas take root quickly and spread even faster; look for factual answers by asking questions of the right people, namely, those who are in a position to give definitive and accurate answers. You may also need to seek additional facts from trustworthy sources such as internal bulletins, official publications and meeting minutes if there is gossip about changes or redundancies that might sideswipe your response.
Gossip is a solution stopper that harms people and can erode a culture while promoting a toxic workplace environment. It can increase conflict and decrease morale in addition to straining relationships while decreasing productivity. Gossip is the death of teamwork as it can create a divide that can sometimes require a senior level leader or manager to spend valuable time refereeing. Its also important to note:
If you are a listener, you are a
co-narrator to the gossip.
In other words, the act of active listening actually supports and promotes
gossiping. The more you listen, the more you encourage it. If you don’t listen, the gossip has nowhere to go.
Here is a great list of things to say to a gossiper so they stop:
- “I feel uncomfortable talking about X whilst they are not in the room. Let’s wait until they can be with us to continue this discussion.”
- “I don’t think it is appropriate to discuss X in this way. They aren’t here to give us their side of the story and it isn’t our place to be making up a story for them.”
- “To be really honest, I dislike hearing about another person in this way; it also makes me wonder if you talk about me like this when I’m not around.”
- “Would you be talking like this if X were here?”
- “Nobody is better than anybody at this job; nobody is ‘just a’ anything. If we cannot speak positively about each other, let us not speak about another person at all.”
If you are the target of gossip you have two choices. You can confront the source or contact your manager and/or your HR Department. Remember, if you are going to address the source, be responsible and address the issue not the person. If you “feel” that you can’t do that, then you should opt for the second route and seek the proper channels within your company.
Maintaining a professional image means keeping conversations factual and business-related, not speculative or personal. Gossiping about your boss or coworkers is a fast path to being viewed as unprofessional, immature and untrustworthy. Once this reputation gets around, you might jeopardize your chance to advance at the company. When it’s all said and done, being busy doing your job usually works pretty well because people who gossip want attention and crave a stage. If you’re preoccupied with your work, you can potentially avoid this all together.
The floor is yours. How do you avoid workplace gossip?
Not-your-typical Personal and Executive Master Certified Coach.
Joshua Miller is a creative and impactful leader. His career experience has spanned both the advertising world and the world of leadership and organizational development. In advertising, he was responsible in delivering campaign strategies for Fortune 100 companies. Now he innovates and delivers results when supporting executive talent development and change management for the same clients.
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