Hey, have you heard the latest? It’s really a juicy story. You won’t believe what I’m going to tell you! Did I get your attention? Almost everyone who hears such words is, as they say “all ears.” We all want to be “in the know” by having the latest information. But did you ever wonder why we want to know? I’ll give you the short answer first: for security and survival.
Gossip has been around for as long as humans have lived in groups. When a tribal runner arrived at the settlement of another tribe and was taken to the chief, the first question was probably some variation of, “So, what’s new?” Upon hearing the news, the chief would know if it was fight or flight time.
Gossiping is a way of getting ready for battle, whether the conflict is with your boss, coworker, or mother-in-law. So, it’s critical to understand what to look for and what to do about gossip—for your own safety and for the safety of your team.
There is a power dynamic at the core of today’s gossip. Just ask anyone at the National Enquirer, or People magazine. Those who get the dirt first are rewarded with important positions and are often sought after or looked up to as leaders. Does it matter whether or not the gossip is based on a kernel of truth? Not really.
Also, note that positive gossip usually has a short shelf life, while negative gossip has great staying power and often morphs repeatedly, like the kid’s game “Whispering Down the Lane.”
So what’s a leader to do? Learn some of the basics of relational leadership and how to diffuse gossip. Before you can lead a team away from the mucky mess of ongoing slanderous talk, be it about you or a coworker, you need to look and listen.
1. Look beyond the organizational chart.
It is your job to be all eyes and ears. By being attentive you can begin to see who has power and status. Just watch what happens at the water cooler or coffee machine. Note if there seems to be a beeline to one specific office or cubicle. Here’s a hint: Often the boss’s gatekeeper is a gossip king or queen.
2. Master the skill of questioning.
The only way to tease out the covert power games is by asking questions. Pointing fingers only escalates potential conflict situations. Open-ended questions that cannot be answered with yes or no are what will get you the information you need to change gossip into a healthy creative effort.
3. Know a “splitter” on sight.
A splitter is a person who plays people off against each other. Splitters take all sides of an issue. They agree with you and then go to your adversary and agree with them, against you. Splitters will interpret information with the intent of making you and others upset and enjoy watching the fireworks from the sidelines. A splitter causes a deep sense of mistrust among colleagues and, because of his or her ability to play covert power games, is very hard to detect.
This is the most difficult behavior pattern to expose and transform. Splitters seem so congenial and helpful. They always want to be your best friend. They always talk about how much they can help you “watch your back” and sniff out the gossips. Be wary! These are the worst pot stirrers. And they often have no conscious knowledge of what they are doing. They honestly believe that they do not speak evil, even when the venom is pouring from their lips. Once they are relieved of their jobs, gossip will lessen and, even more important, anger and resentment in the team will subside.
4. Encourage emotional honesty.
The way to limit innuendos, emotional bribery, mixed messages, splitting, and covert power games is to create an organizational environment of emotional openness. Until recently, emotional openness at work was often considered a sign of weakness or potential danger. In fact, the opposite is true.
In a workplace culture where people are encouraged to say what they mean and do what they say, there is a sense of alignment and integrity. This is said with a word of caution: please remember, the workplace is not a rehab facility.
Talking in an open and truthful manner is not easy. It requires thinking before speaking. It means considering consequences—really looking at the undertow from words and deeds. Many of the companies I have counseled rely on the adage, “Watch your wake.” Actions always have reverberations. It is high time we begin to take them into consideration before we move a muscle.
5. Hold gossipy individuals accountable.
As children, gossipy people were often used as family scapegoats. As adults, they may be looking for ways to appear important—even indispensable. The way to limit gossip (and please know it will never go away entirely) is to acknowledge the perpetrator when she or he helps to highlight conditions in the workplace that are not working.
Then, to spur deep and lasting change, ask the individual this key accountability question: “What outcome are you hoping to achieve as a result of spreading this story around the office?” Then you must wait. Let minutes go by. It’s okay, just wait. Let the gossipy girl or guy sit with the question. Don’t allow them to leave. Require an answer.
This type of honest conversation, sprinkled with the spice of accountability, will usually jumpstart the change process needed to achieve an atmosphere of openness in the office.
As a leader, model honest questioning and hold people accountable for their actions. You will be rewarded with a fast paced, enlivened work team that can get things done in record time.
About the Author
Dr. Sylvia Lafair, author of Don’t Bring It to Work, is the President of CEO-Creative Energy Options, Inc., a dynamic consulting firm optimizing workplace relationships. Visit her websites, www.sylvialafair.com andwww.ceoptions.com; Sylvia can be reached at
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