The Silent Signs of Gossip

Teenage-like behaviour may be sabotaging your organization

Gossip in the Workplace

Doesn’t everyone hope that high school behaviour ends at graduation? Unfortunately, some people’s emotions don’t advance beyond those teen years and those individuals continue to crave a sense of inclusion that comes from gossip. The mean girls who snub others and the boys who talk about their dates should all be in the past, but it often makes its way into the adult workplace.

Gossip is any conversation about others (who aren’t present during the discussion) that typically focuses on details that aren’t proven or shouldn’t be commonly-known, aside from a supervisory or HR-style discussion such as a promotion or personal issue. In a place of business and professionalism, there is no room for this kind of conversation where information should either be transparent or strictly confidential.

Gossip can run rampant and lay down a blanket of mistrust in workplaces because of the temptation it holds for those needing inclusion, a sense of power, to be seen as better than others or many other negative emotional boosts. It’s the sense of secretiveness and aura of mystery that creates connectivity with others. Being part of gossip used to seem cool as a teen, but adults participating in it are also perpetuating lies, bullying, creating mistrust and causing other serious workplace issues.

I have been called in to “fix” many workplaces and management is often shocked when I report the primary problem is gossip. I’ve learned three ways to spot gossip:

  1. Head on a swivel
    When some people hide their private business, or play Candy Crush on work time, they look to see who’s watching or listening. If the looking around to see who is in earshot occurs during a conversation or when sending a text or email about someone else, it’s gossip.
  2. Time and productivity theft
    Are some employees spending too much time at the water cooler? Do they feel the need to wander the office to chat to everyone? Are they so focused on talking about others that they delay their work tasks, run behind and miss deadlines? This is gossip.
  3. Tension and the great divide
    If anxiety, tension and mistrust exist in the workplace and an “us versus them” culture has cropped up, it’s likely gossip. People avoiding their coworkers, hiding from social discussions and worrying about what others know or think about them are definite indicators of gossip.

It is interesting that these three gossip identifiers are primarily non-verbal.  Not a word needs to be spoken. Pick a spot in your workplace like the lunchroom, gathering areas or even the washrooms to observe people’s behaviour and “watch” the gossip activity.

Observing also reveals the emotional fall-out from gossip. Three things can be witnessed:

  1. Anxiety or full-blown fear in those who are targets. It may be something overheard or simply seeing those who gossip standing together that reveals this behaviour.
  2. Frustration or anger in targets, those afraid of being targets or people who want to protect targets. They wonder who is already being talked about and what can be done.
  3. Excitement is often the expression of the perpetrator when they have something juicy to share with others. There can almost be an “adrenalin rush” type feeling.

It is easy to observe who seeks out others to share with, who avoids certain people and who seems isolated from the group. Gossip is your culprit and regardless of how it is observed, its consequences are real.

This teenage behaviour in adult-populated workplaces is damaging, unproductive and costly. In order to fix the workplaces with gossip issues I teach employees to stop; whether they are the gossiper or listener. Here are some simple, yet difficult strategies:

  1. Stop listening
    gossip can only occur if there is a listener:
    1. walk away
    2. state “this is not okay”
  2. Acid test
    ask yourself:
    1. is this something I would say in front of that person?
    2. can this be backed up with facts?
  3. Interrupt
    interrupt the conversation when it’s gossip:
    1. state “this is not okay”
    2. identify it as gossip

Gossip is an innocuous and simple word but the act of it is dangerous and the damage it can do knows no boundaries. It can go undetected for a while but when it impacts people, productivity and culture it can become toxic, destructive and create a human resource nightmare.

Spend some time observing and listening to your workplace, assess the degree of gossip happening in your company and pledge to do something about it. It might be teenage stuff, but it needs adult intervention.

If you are ready to tackle gossip in your workplace and stop the teenage behaviour, we can put together an assessment and strategy plan to address the problems and implement honest talk.  Contact us atpam@thepossbilities.ca or 604-349-8660 so we can begin creating positive change in your workplace.

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