Tame the tongue

Communication  Culture
07 December, 2015

Don’t keep the rumour mill going: ways to curb harmful gossip

So, have you even spoken about people behind their backs? Have you indulged in loose talk? Have you relied on getting information from or feeding the proverbial grapevine? Have you spread rumours (deliberately or unintentionally) about someone?

Whether we like it or not, gossip is a part of the office and life outside work. It is difficult to avoid it. Even if we are not the ones actually gossiping, we end up listening in. Sometimes, that can be quite enough.

As leaders, how we react to gossip – whether we encourage it (passively or otherwise), choose to participate in it, or cause the situations that trigger it – reflects very pointedly on us, and by extension, the culture that we are building at our company.

There is a Spanish proverb that puts it very aptly: “Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you”.

So, my message this week is on gossip – why we end up indulging in it, what we need to be concerned about, and what we can actively do to not encourage it.

Why do we gossip?

The mistake that people often make while dealing with gossip, is being dismissive and assuming that all there is to it, is mere idle chatter. But the fact is that gossip actually serves a purpose. That’s what makes it so pervasive. It’s the reason you can’t wish it away easily. And unless we understand and acknowledge this, we won’t be able to counter it effectively.

Joseph Grenny in his Harvard Business Review article ‘Stop Enabling Gossip on Your Team’, identifies three such purposes. The first, is informational. As a source of information, gossip either augments or contradicts your formal channels of communication. It is so sought after because it is what you would not have heard otherwise – the ‘real, behind-the-scenes’ story. The second, is emotional. Given how complicated and challenging work situations can become, gossip is also an emotional release and vent of sorts for some people. The third, is interpersonal. Gossip becomes an indirect way for people to engage in interpersonal conflicts, without having to take them head on.

Take a moment to think about whether you have found yourself gossiping for one or more of these reasons.

So, why then do you need to be concerned about gossip?

Now, gossip isn’t necessarily bad. There is enough that could be neutral or even positive. And given that when people are looking to connect with each other, they will talk about each other, some of this is only natural.

But when gossip becomes vindictive and the speculation is harmful, that’s when it becomes a concern. When people get distracted and they end up laying much more focus on pulling down colleagues and partners rather than developing themselves or driving business priorities. When it starts sapping energy. Imagine the impact that this has on a larger scale, when you have multiple people doing this across a company.

Negative gossip gets perpetuated when there is a breakdown of trust or lack of communication. We start turning to it more and more for answers and alternatives to systems that we feel we cannot fully trust. As Grenny points out, we are more inclined to turn to trusted colleagues and friends for information, rather than official communication from our company and leadership. A breakdown only encourages this.

Uncertainty and mistrust lead to gossip, which leads to more uncertainty and mistrust. It’s a vicious cycle. The more we dip into it, the less inclined we will be to figuring out ways to manage the real problems that lie beneath it. That’s what makes it tricky.

How do you manage negative gossip?

Your team members will pick up on the signals that you send out and much of how they act and react too, will be determined by this. If you indulge in gossip, then the people you are with will start wondering how much they can trust you with what they say in confidence. Worse, if the gossip is negative and detrimental to someone else’s character, then will certainly going against you.

Here are some tips on how you could better manage gossip:

1. Don’t declare an open ban

If there is one thing that won’t work for sure, then it is this. Studies show that some 96 per cent of people admit to engaging in gossip at their workplaces. Add to that, the fact that these people are turning to it as a recourse for a real purpose. There is no way that a directive will quell that. If anything, it will only trigger more gossip about why this is being enforced in the first place.

2. Acknowledge that there is a larger problem

Gossip is a symptom. It isn’t the problem. So, figure out what is really wrong and focus on resolving it. It will most likely, circle back to a lack of enough credible information in the first place. Open up communication channels, share more information and be as upfront as you can. This will be much more appreciated.

3. Call it out

Gossip works when there is an audience. If you stop listening, so will it. There isn’t much point in a one-sided conversation. Be the one to break this chain. And when you can, call it out in the open. This is the part that people usually shy away from. It takes a fair bit of courage sometimes, given the uncomfortable conversations and conflict that it could generate. But do away with the anonymity. Get the people involved to acknowledge and discuss it. If you hear someone say something that could be harmful to someone else, then speak up. Talk to people you find gossiping about the effect that their behaviour can have on the people they talk about. If needed, take a stronger stance. This is the only real way to work towards resolutions for the longer term.

4. Create alternative channels

Give people the information that they are looking for. That really is the best way to stem the demand for gossip from arising. There could be many ways to doing this. Maybe what you need is to boost already existing formal communication platforms and communicate through them more regularly. Maybe you need to get more or the right people to communicate. Maybe you need to reevaluate the communication networks you have in place and change them if they aren’t meeting the needs of your teams. Experiment with newer, simpler, quicker and most importantly, platforms where people can talk back to you.

5. Anticipate and plan for it

If, for example, you know that there is something that is likely to have people curious or disturbed, and that they will want more information about, then actively plan for it. Don’t let it run its own course. Figure out a communication plan, get people on board who can be advocates and talk about it. It is always better and much more effective to address this sooner rather than later.

6. Be in the know

You won’t be able to manage gossip unless you are in the know about it. You need to know what is going around, because it says a lot about the pulse of your company. So, build and tap into your informal networks. Ensure that you know what is happening and what people are talking about around you.

If we really want to build a workspace that doesn’t encourage negative gossip – where our team members are able to work together effectively, agree to disagree, enjoy diversity of thought, and at the same time build a supportive, collaborative work culture – then we will need to commit to making communication a priority. Each of us will need to start communicating more and more openly. And this is something that we will need to show, together, by example. It will mean taking the tougher conversations head on, being as authentic as possible with our feedback and opinions and not leaving much to speculation.

I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.

Comments

  • Samir Suryawanshi says:

    One of the key takeouts for me, Vivek, was on how tolerant/understanding one should be (including myself) about the feedback/divergent views others have about you or the task at hand. The moment an individual gives people space for that, people will automatically be open and more candid with their views and won’t indulge into rumouring behind one’s back.

  • Vibhor Mahendru says:

    Nice read. I think it is important to understand and control our content when we “gossip” as it may not be our intent what follows after that. That way we could keep the impact within limits. Thanks.

  • Sunita Devrani says:

    Yes, there are grapevines at office. Important is to be mindful and connect with people over mutual interests and passions rather than gossip..

  • Swati Verma says:

    Vivek, you touched upon a very important topic that runs through every organisation. My observation is that there are 2 sets of people in a company that become subjects of gossip – the veterans of the company who have eventually become so rigid about their ideas and working habits, and the other set are the new joinees who are usually keenly followed with a negative intention of not letting them settle down. The team leader here can encourage informal meetings so that such negativity is reduced.

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