Does your office sometimes resemble a middle-school schoolyard? Office gossip is inevitable, but an overactive rumor mill can create an uncomfortable and unproductive work environment. Marlene Chism, author of Stop Workplace Drama: Train Your Team to have No Complaints, No Excuses and No Regrets and the upcoming No Drama Leadership: How Enlightened Leaders Transform Culture in the Workplace, says gossip is a natural human behavior.
“We’re all meaning-making machines. We operate on feelings and assumptions,” says Chism. Gossip is simply making up stories about what we believe, see or feel. We may make assumptions about why a co-worker called in sick (“Maybe she’s pregnant”) or why the boss hasn’t come out of his office in two days (“The company must be in trouble”).
Not all gossip is bad. When we think of gossip, we most often think of the malicious chatter behind co-workers’ backs that can damage reputations and cause hurt feelings. While this type of gossip certainly can exist and results in a culture of mistrust and uncertainty, the reality is, not all gossip is bad. One study out of the University of California, Berkeley, found prosocial gossip – that is, gossip that is driven by concern for others – can promote camaraderie and can even help to relieve stress. The study measured the heart rates of participants who were observing two people playing a game where one person was clearly cheating. When the participants were able to pass a “gossip note” and tell the player about the poor behavior of their opponent, the participants’ heart rates lowered and they reported feeling less anxious.
Where gossip becomes a problem, says Chism, is when it’s malicious. The type of gossip that stirs up trouble for your business is the kind that is caused by ill intentions towards an individual or group. This type of gossip can be harmful to productivity and tarnish the culture of the work environment. If left ignored, this negative gossip can cause employee turnover, poor morale and disruption of work flow.
How to prevent gossip from spreading out of control:
Chism says the majority of office gossip is a result of poor internal communication. When people lack clarity, they’re forced to make assumptions about what they see, hear or feel. “The brain naturally wants closure,” says Chism. “If you as a leader start changing direction and people don’t understand why, people start gossiping.” Suddenly cancelling a staff meeting, for example, can start a rumor that people are being laid off.
The type of gossip that starts when people feel uncertain is the worst kind of gossip and can be incredibly damaging to an organization. Preventing this type of gossip, Chism says, starts with implementing proper channels of communication and creating a safe environment for people to make suggestions, ask questions and clarify their concerns. If people have clarity and feel their concerns are heard, they will have no reason to gossip.
Listen for language that indicates blame, resentment or judgment.
Keep your ear to the ground to spot when your office rumor mill is churning. “When someone says she thinks she’s better than everyone else, that’s not a fact. You don’t know how someone else thinks. That’s just a feeling that’s coming from hurt,” says Chism. The use of this type of judgment language is an indication that your office has a gossip problem.
Language that indicates a lack of personal responsibility is another red flag. An employee who says, “Everyone’s upset with the current work schedule” or “Jane’s having a hard time finishing that report on time” may be basing their comments on observable behavior but until you hear the truth from the individuals involved, it’s merely storytelling and can be damaging gossip. Encouraging employees to represent themselves means you’ll be basing your leadership decisions on fact, rather than gossip.
Model the behavior.
As a leader, understanding the role you play in the creation of office gossip is the first step towards eliminating its harmful effects. The way to set boundaries on acceptable behavior, Chism says, is to model the behavior yourself. If the boss regularly whispers secrets to employees in the break room, it’s likely others will act the same way. Decide how you want others to behave when it comes to water cooler conversations and break room chats and model that behavior to others, making it clear which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
Confront the office busybody.
Every office has that one person who loves to stir up the pot and spread any kind of information – good or bad. In some cases, you may find you need to confront specific perpetrators of negative gossip. Explain the impact of their behavior on the company and the consequence of continuing the behavior. Chism says in most cases where internal communication issues have been dealt with and a culture of open communication is instilled, these office busybodies discover resistance to their rumor-spreading and either leave the organization or stop the behavior.