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Gossip and Rumors in the Workplace: Three Things You Can Do To Stop Them

One of my sons regularly takes our dog to the local dog park. Recently, while breaking up some overly rough play between ours and another dog, my son was bitten and needed medical attention. Word spread quickly about the bite. To ward off rumors and gossip, and because the bite wasn’t the result of a vicious act, my son refused to say which dog bit him.

His strategy didn’t work. Within a day or two, the (inaccurate) rumor was out that he was bitten by a pit bull.

Gossip in the Workplace is Insidious

Let’s move the issue out of the park and into the workplace. Just because something happens or somebody says something, doesn’t mean we should talk about it. In offices, gossip is viewed as annoying and unwelcome behavior based on a survey mentioned in the 2009 article How to Handle Workplace Gossip, yet it still happens. That same article describes what we all know to be true–that careers can be harmed and even killed by gossip.

Gossip Destroys Trust

In the article, Banish Gossip, Build Trust, psychologist Rhoberta Shaler notes, “Trust is destroyed by gossip–and, so are people.” The harm to trust to obvious. Pick any of the four factors of the Trust Equation (Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-orientation), and imagine a rumor started about someone you know who is currently trustworthy.

What would happen if the rumor said that she missed an important deadline and people talked about it? Would you be concerned about partnering with her on the next project with tight time frames? It’s certainly safer to work with someone else, isn’t it?

It may seem odd, but truth isn’t the issue. What if the rumor is true but the full context was missing. Suppose there were extenuating circumstances, like a death in the family. Trust is the victim, along with your co-worker.

What Can You Do?

Here are three easy rules you can follow:

  1. Don’t encourage gossip and rumors. If someone starts to spread gossip, true or not, don’t waste your valuable time listening. Be honest about it–say something like “this is not something I want to hear or talk about,” or, “let’s not talk this way–it doesn’t help matters.”
  2. Don’t simply believe what you hear. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. Work hard not to believe the gossip and rumors that you do hear. If it’s important to your business, you may feel the need to verify, but be careful not to act on rumors.
  3. Don’t spread it further. We each have the opportunity to use discretion. The less we say about others, the better off we are. In fact, refusing to participate in spreading gossip and rumors increases our Intimacy factor in the Trust Equation. Think about it; who would you feel more likely to share personal information with, someone known to gossip or someone known to be discrete?

Meanwhile, Back at the Dog Park

It was easy for my son to put an end to talk of his incident in the dog park. He spoke with those he thought might be sharing the rumor, and told them it wasn’t the pit bull that had bitten him. And, he didn’t tell anyone which dog did bite him. That was between him and the owner of that dog. Following his example of saying little, and by refusing to participate by listening and spreading talk, you may be able to reduce gossip and rumors, even in the workplace.

 

12 replies
  1. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    Well said Stewart. When gossip and rumour gets into the system it’s almost impossible to manage. The Japanese have several techniques for getting to the truth as part of their focus on quality. Two that come to mind are “The 5 Whys?” – keep asking until you’ve established the root issue at its source. The other is “Kaitzen”, which is all about establishing facts as by actually physically going to the root source and establishing truth.

    The books of Philip B. Crosby and W Edwards Deming are excellent sources of information on this approach, albeit from the World of manufacturing process management.

    Reply
  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Stewart,

    Another perspective, if I may,

    Gossip is a form of workplace violence – a language that inflicts harm, pain, suffering or confusion – mental, emotional, psychological and/or spiritual.

    Up until recently, most of us have viewed workplace gossip as playful, “idle chatter,” and “just kidding.”

    Contrary to popular opinion, gossip is not benign; it’s not idle; it’s not tame; it’s not “for the fun of it;” it’s not “just kidding.” It’s certainly not entertainment.

    Gossip is a pernicious, emotional workplace cancer that eats away at the well-being of the individual, the group and the team.

    Unfortunately, these days gossip has taken on a harsher tone – of abuse, of violence. Gossip, in fact, has become the “personal attack” du jour.

    In many of our lives, gossip is a norm, albeit many say they are “against” it.

    One hallmark of a true “team” is shared values — including mutual honesty, trust and respect and being in integrity. Where gossip rears its ugly head, these shared values are nonexistent. When gossip exists, there can be no “team.” Gossip destroys the glue or coherence that makes a team a team.

    In my experience as a facilitator and coach, after witnessing sensitivity workshops designed to reduce and eliminate pernicious gossip, after observing managers mandating “there be no more gossip,” and even after experiencing managers and employees pledging to have more honest, open and direct communication, many of these same committed folks consciously choose to continue to engage in the practice of gossip.

    The basis of violent language

    Some broader definitions of gossip relate not only to “negative” remarks, but even extend to “positive” or “neutral” remarks focused on “making conversation” – conversation that is centered on the activities/behaviors of others outside the presence of that person.

    Gossip is a form of attack, which most often has its roots in one’s conscious or unconscious fears. One’s ostensible commitment “not to gossip” is easily eroded by their fears, anxieties, or concerns about what their life might be like if they stopped gossiping (e.g., “Who would I be then?” What would I talk about?” “How would I be one of the guys/gal?” “Would I have to eat lunch alone?” “Would I lose all my friends?”).

    Stopping the practice of “talking about others” is challenging. A major reason is that many folks have difficulty being authentic; they revert to their self-defense mechanism – gossiping – so they don’t have to “show up”, show their vulnerability, disclose information about their own states, feelings or emotions, or “open up.” This self-protection affords them a kind of pseudo safety and false sense of well-being.

    “Not gossiping” is not mastered with a mental thought, belief or affirmation. Fear trumps the mental thought. One’s desire to be real, authentic and to not gossip, if it is to “take,” has to come from deeper down, below the neck. One’s desire to not gossip, to be sincere and authentic has to emerge from one’s deep, heart-centered, sense of integrity, and from a conscious, heart-felt commitment and intentionality to be harmless in the context of their life and interactions with others.

    Engage in non-violence

    Without this profound inner commitment to harmlessness, to “non-violence,” an injunction, or policy, or superficial value to “stop gossiping”, for example, is no more than an externally induced rule or policy that can often bring up ego-based behaviors that are reactive to the “rule” (i.e., “No one’s gonna tell me how to behave!”) So, one continues to find “excuses” (there’s never a “reason”) to gossip.

    From this external perspective toward gossiping, some people may take on the role of being an enforcer of the rule; others may not want to “enforce” the rule because they don’t wish to be perceived as too assertive, too aggressive, too pushy. And others may not want to be identified as a “do-gooder,” “crusader, or, God forbid, “spiritual!”

    Those who engage in gossip are folks (sometimes the narcissist, sometimes the psychopath, or sycophants, or sometimes just the lonely, alone, abandoned or victimized) who want or need to be liked and accepted, and who want or need others to feel comfortable with them and so jump at the opportunity to perpetuate gossip or look for opportunities to join in others’ gossip sessions. For whatever reason, they cannot countenance the feeling of being the “odd one out.” Their commitment “to not gossip” has a very, very short shelf-life.

    Learning what you don’t know

    For other folks, the issue is not so much that they’re consciously being self-protective; it’s that they don’t know they are being self-protective. These folks are unable and unwilling to be self-responsible for their gossiping. These individuals choose to blame, find fault with, complain and whine about others (“the Devil made me do it…) as they lack the self-awareness that would take them “inside” to explore “what’s up with me.” So, they search for some “reason,” outside themselves, to justify their gossiping.

    Unless we honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly explore our self-images, ego beliefs, assumptions, premises and “stories,” we cannot be free from either the urge to, or habit of, engaging in gossip.

    Gossip is a form of workplace violence. To be free from inflicting this violence on others we need to explore and heal the split between our outer self and inner self. Only then can we live honest, sincere and responsible lives in our workplace, and out.

    Gandhi used the term “nonviolence” as it refers to our natural state of being loving and compassionate — when there is no violence in our heart or in our mind. Gossip is not present, or possible, when we’re in our natural state of acceptance, compassion and tolerance.

    Questions we use to reflect on our relationship to gossip:

    Why do I engage in gossip or support others who gossip? Really?
    What does gossiping get me? Is there another way to get this same result without harming another?
    Does gossiping align with my personal and my organization’s values around respecting and honoring people?
    Would I repeat gossip directly to the person it’s about?
    Would I want to be quoted on TV or in the papers or in the company newsletter?
    Would I (Do I) encourage my children to gossip? Did I gossip as a child? Did my parents gossip when I was growing up?
    Would I (Do I) engage in gossip if it were about a relative, personal friend, spouse or partner?
    Do I feel authentic, sincere, and in integrity when I gossip?
    Do I feel I’m a trustworthy person when I’m gossiping?
    Do I show up authentically most of the time? If not, why not?
    What’s my experience as the one who is gossiping?
    What’s my experience been as the one who has been the target of gossip?
    On a scale of 1-10, to what degree does gossiping take up a greater part of my time and energy?
    How do you respond when someone in your presence is engaged in gossiping? Do you go along to get along, go silent, defend the person being talked about, or…? And, why?
    If you don’t speak up or you allow another to gossip, you’re basically an accomplice. How does that make you feel?
    Would you trust and respect a person who gossips? If you gossip, do you believe folks really, really trust and respect you?
    Does your organization have ground rules around gossip, e.g., if we have an issue, etc. with someone we talk directly to that person?
    Are your references to your colleagues and co-workers generally positive and supportive or negative and demeaning?
    Do you tell yourself a “story” that you use to justify or rationalize your gossiping?
    Do you believe that you can gossip and be in integrity at the same time?

    It’s helpful to explore the “Why do I gossip?” question and look at what gossip gets us — in other words, what our motivations for gossiping are. “Why am I willing (consciously or unconsciously) to cause another person harm, hurt, upset, or pain?” — the WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) question.

    Since no one is born gossiping, how is it that some of us develop into individuals who have a desire, need or obsession to engage in a such a violent or toxic behavior?

    The short answer is that each of us grows up with three basic psycho-social needs – the needs for control, security and recognition.

    By preoccupying ourselves with the life, or activities of another person, by being critical of them, by being judgmental of them, by being dishonest about them, by betraying them, and by putting them down, through the act of gossip, we feel we are lifting ourselves up. We engage in gossip to avoid personal responsibility for our feelings of frustration, irritation and anger by acting out through gossip and projecting our personal discontent on another.

    So, for example, when we’re feeling like a “nobody” and have a need to feel like a “somebody,” we often believe we can gain some sense of control, recognition, approval or security by gossiping.

    By asking ourselves, with honesty, sincerity and self-responsibility: “Why do I really gossip?” and “What does gossip get me?” we can explore root causes of why we gossip, why we choose to allow the violence of gossip to permeate our workplace behavior and why we gossip in an attempt to feel good about ourselves in some conscious or unconscious way at the expense of harming another.

    Reply
  3. Ed Drozda
    Ed Drozda says:

    Great insight Stewart and I am glad your son is well. I offer yet another perspective, not so much on the gossip per se but the vehicle that perpetuates its’ speedy transit. Indeed gossip is a negative thing, as it takes on a life of its own and lacks credibility at the get go or loses it as it travels about. But when I think of the “grapevine” or underlying chain of communication in the workplace (the channels through which gossip travels), I am reminded that this often overlooked mode of communication is a vital link in the workplace WHEN it is used to circulate truthful and useful information.

    Reply
  4. Adrian Dayton
    Adrian Dayton says:

    Stewart,

    Great article because it points out an often overlooked virtue. I’m not sure what to name the virtue other than to say there are people that spread gossip and others that stop it. I like being around and working with people in the second category.

    Just because you heard something, doesn’t mean its ok to share it. I wish this was a more widely recognized as the right thing to do.

    Reply
  5. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Thanks for all your comments! To all those who asked privately about my son’s welfare, he’s fine. He was bitten on his hand, and it went pretty deep, but no infection. Still hurts a bit though.

    Chris – thanks for sharing some additional sources and approach. I think while getting to the truth can be very important, in many cases, even the truth isn’t relevant. All too often, talking about people, even when sharing true information can have subtle negative consequences. For example, sharing with a colleague (the “recipient”) about the promotion of another colleague (the “subject”) could lead to bad feelings if it’s not relevant to the job. What if the recipient was seeking a promotion or didn’t think the subject deserved a promotion? What purpose does it serve other than as gossip, even when it’s true?

    Peter – you delve more deeply into these issues, and even broaden them in your thoughtful response. It’s long but well worth the read – thank you!

    Ed – another great insight. Too bad there’s a gossip mill to use, but since it’s there, your suggestion of using it as a means of communication is interesting and thought provoking.

    Adrian – your first sentence of your second paragraph says it all, and is worth repeating: “Just because you heard something, doesn’t mean it’s ok to share it.” I’d like to add two more: “Just because someone wants to tell you something, doesn’t mean you have to listen.” And: “Just because you heard something, doesn’t mean you should believe it.”

    Thanks for all your valuable thoughts!

    Reply
  6. APrata
    APrata says:

    Gossip in the workplace is costly, inappropriate, can lead to measurable negative operational, financial and HR impact
    Stewart Hirsh- fabulous topic and Peter Vajda- outstanding response!
    As an executive in corporate America for the past 22 years I have a strong position on gossip in the workplace.
    First, I am not an ordinary executive, I am a turnaround executive –it is also critical to know that I am not a bankruptcy workout turnaround guy: on the contrary, my focus is saving the company and keeping the jobs. Although an attorney by education, bankruptcy for me is a funeral. This is true. If a company chooses bankruptcy or has bankruptcy happen to them –chances are they are done- this is a death and thus a funeral. Given the current capital markets a bankruptcy can happen to a company relatively quickly these days but whether it is quick or over a number of quarters of painfully missing revenue and poor operations; at the end of the day, if a company is in bankruptcy I assure you, there is plenty of gossip.
    Turnarounds are unique in that the culture itself could be one that supports gossip and backstabbing as a method of being successful. I have seen gossip play out in the ugliest of ways. It is frankly quite sad to what can happen in a turnaround as gossip and decreased moral take hold. Admittedly these are potentially extreme situations but the company did not start out as extreme or with extreme people. The people are all normal humans working in a normal company. ….. Until things go bad ….very bad. Analogous to the TV show “When Animals Attack.” When gossip in the work place takes hold (other things are not going well too) but bad things happen. A bad culture and one that either directly supports or does not discourage gossip is no different that teenage internet bullying. (This is where Peter’s point about gossip and work place violence also plays out) Specifically; (Forward looking statement: my experience is with distressed and turnaround –these examples may not apply to all and I am by no means stating that they do), gossip can lead to depression in employees, it can lead to theft of company supplies or worse and when the culture and gossip gets bad enough it can lead to violence. It can lead to suicide. Untreated depression is the greatest cause of suicide. Gossip can send already depressed people into greater depression. There is depression in turnaround and there are issues of suicide. Fear, stress and gossip are exceptional fire starters in a distressed situation. They are fire starters in any situation
    Gossip impacts the topline because people who should be driving sales get caught up in the gossip of what is going on with the company whether it is right or wrong information; the sales force becomes defocused and closes less business. Their moral shows in a forecast call, it shows in the number of new client visits going on and it shows in the body language of the salespeople when they are on prospective client sites.
    The bottom line is impacted because when gossip occurs in a work place people spend more time doing less work – they spend more time trying to find new jobs, more time at the coffee pot and did I mention more time doing less work for which they are paid. This is measurable and how about that…. We have less work being done and more money going out the door in a company that is already in financial and operational distress. How fast do you think a person working 2 less hours can impact a company balance sheet- it takes 2 to gossip so it has to be at least 4 hours a day between 2 people? The precise numbers are not the point. The point is gossip can have measurable negative impact to the top line and bottom line of a company balance sheet.
    The real challenge is fixing a distressed company and getting it going again and stopping the gossip. These challenges are systemic in a turnaround and my view is they must happen together to save the company. More specially, gossip can exist in any company but in a turnaround or distressed situation the gossip can be a subset of the culture of the company. When gossip is part of the culture is a byproduct of company culture that is in bad shape and without repair all the financial repair on earth will not remedy the culture and the byproducts of a bad culture. Culture is the single greatest thing a CEO and leadership team can change that positively or negatively impacts the top and bottom line. For the purposes of this blog on gossip, a culture that has gossip as a byproduct can be caustic, operates under the 1970’s ideal of theory X management or can be an unassuming family owned company with leadership who most think just wants everyone to get along. At the end of the day all of these environments directly or indirectly by not discouraging it; support a culture that allows, if not supports gossip.
    Some companies have a culture so foul that a culture “of get what you get however you get it,” is actually encouraged. In this case, survival alone can result in creating gossip. Survival is a human instinct – when fear hits humans result to instinct for safety. This applies to job safety or ducking if one things they are about to be hit.
    I remind you I come from distressed and turnaround. If there was no gossip then could things have actually been different? I stipulate to the fact I am in no means stating that ceasing gossip will create more customers, will stop poor operational performance and by all means stopping gossip may not make the balance sheet flush with cash. But at the end of the day it is really simple. We are in a capitalist economy. We as Americans technically should be working to improve companies, create jobs, be competitive and drive forward the economy. Gossip simply does not add any value to any one, any business unit, any team or any company in any positive way. It does destroy the human spirit, it is inherently of no value, it does harm and the harm can be measured.
    Bottom line: as an executive in corporate America, I have a written and verbally communicated policy for my organizations and my team. It is crystal clear- no gossip in the work place. Do not bring it to me, do not spread it. If someone gossips, please help to stop it. The key is not the “what” I just said, but “how” I communicate this message is also important. The policy of no gossip cannot be communicated as a dictate or a guiding principal on paper; in order for it to work, my experience illustrates that the policy must be massaged into the culture it must be communicated with kindness and courageous leadership that shows the team, “here is what we have without gossip and also communicated with the firmness of reminding what can happen to the team, the company, the financial numbers and the human who is the recipient of the gossip.
    I reinforce this policy with team activities that directly and indirectly help executives and team members to work together when people are under stress and extreme stress – knowing how we are as humans under stress and putting these issues on the table does stop gossip.
    I had an employee leave me one time and in her resignation letter she said, “I did not believe it when I came here that you could really create a culture of no gossip. I have never worked somewhere where that did not happen and you did it. Thank you.”
    Respectfully submitted
    APrata
    CEO Re-EngineeringCapitalism
    [email protected]
    214 450 4151

    Reply
  7. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    Perhaps we just get to a point where, in a big company, many of the jobs are done by people who like to gossip – it’s just the way they are. Big organisations employ all sorts of people you’ll never see in 10 people company. In a ten-person organisation you’d fire them because gossip and rumour would impact on everyone – and it’s easily identified. Big organisations, like one I used to work for, with something like 150,000 people, carry all sorts of odd-bods, and a fair number who not only gossip, but have the time because they only do about a day’s work a week! But that’s whole new story.

    Reply
  8. Stewart HIrsch
    Stewart HIrsch says:

    Anna – I am both intrigued and elated by your approach to gossip in the workplace. An executive that not only frowns on gossip, but creates a culture that prohibits it sounds rare. I would love to hear that there are more like you. Hearing from your perspective, the very real cost of gossip, affecting both the top and bottom lines, is enlightening. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking contribution to this discussion.

    Chris – your tongue-in-cheek quip about people who have the time to gossip lends yet another perspective on the productivity cost it brings. Wouldn’t it be great to have stats about this? I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s already a study out there somewhere.

    Thanks again to both of you for continuing this conversation!

    Reply

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