While conversations with your colleagues can inspire camaraderie and workplace connectivity, most gossip stems from a negative place. Even if the topic you’re discussing seems as though it couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, office gossip can have unintended negative impacts on people, and organizations.
Gossip, like all human communication, is a means of fostering community and developing relationships with our peers. It can often satiate a need for bonding, venting, and even a hunger for power or control. However, while it can bond people together, it stands to be divisive when facts and data are disregarded for hearsay and word-of-mouth.
How to Identify Gossip When You Hear It
So, how can you identify if a conversation between coworkers is innocent chitchat, or malicious gossip that can potentially pollute the culture of your teams and organizations?
Gossip demonstrates one or more of the following qualities:
- The participants seem to take pleasure at the hardship suffered by another
- The dialogue has a negative tone or appears to be propagating conflict
- You would feel awkward and uncomfortable disclosing the details of what was said to the person being discussed
- You’re hearing unsubstantiated rumors about an employee, their job status, or personal life
What Are the Harmful Effects of Gossip?
People talk. Gossip spreads. And when it does, it can have several detrimental effects on the workplace, as well as employees.
- Dissolution of Trust: Trust is instrumental in creating a positive and productive work environment. Gossip dissolves trust in a multitude of ways. Those who talk are likely to alienate themselves from colleagues to identify the toxic behavior, and in turn, are likely to be gossiped about as a ringleader or instigator. Ultimately, the rumor-mill will spread the news and whoever it’s about will wonder if they can trust their coworkers ever again.
- Impacts Moral: Gossiping can inspire resentment and negativity among co-workers. Excessive gossiping fosters an environment that can become mentally taxing for those being talked about, and even impact their mental health in the long-term. In addition, low morale can create a higher attrition rate, which can lead to long-term staffing issues if a new employee senses they’re entering a toxic work environment.
- Mitigates Teamwork: Gossip can be detrimental to work scenarios that require collaboration. Targeted workers will build walls and become resistant to communication and their teammates. Cooperation falls by the wayside, and the result is an environment where everyone thinks the worst of their peers and is less concerned about production than they are with who said what about whom.
- Undermine Authority: When the gossip is about an executive or supervisor it can be a particularly nasty plague to cure. It diminishes the level of respect workers have for their managers and in turn, leads to insubordination and disruptions to business.
- Litigation: Since gossip is rarely positive, an individual on the receiving end may view it as a form of harassment and may attempt to seek legal recompense if it is not handled in a satisfactory manner by a supervisor or management.
- Punitive Measures: Gossip doesn’t have to be about individuals. Gossip can also include the disclosing of sensitive materials to non-privy parties, including confidential company materials to competitors. When gossip breaks company policy, the punishment can be immediate termination, and in some drastic cases, more severe measures may be taken.
What You Can Do to Rise Above Office Gossip
Taking the high road and avoiding office gossip is often easier said than done. Should you become involved in a negative conversation about a coworker, try the following to diffuse the situation:
- Change the Subject: When you find yourself in an uncomfortable conversation that’s taking a negative turn, change the subject. Weekend plans, your favorite Netflix show, or even a recent sporting event are great options that everyone is likely to chime in on. If you’re unsuccessful in transitioning to a more welcoming topic, politely excuse yourself.
- Make a Positive Comment: Counteract negative gossip by reminding your colleagues of the positive attributes of the targeted individual. Perhaps they did a favor for someone, stayed late to finish a project, or made a defining contribution to a meeting or committee.
- Confront it: Gossip only happens because people don’t speak up to challenge the instigators. If you’re confronted with a situation where you’re involved in or witnessing negative gossip, speak up. Something as simple as, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable discussing a colleague in this manner,” and excusing yourself from the discussion demonstrates a firm rejection of the behavior and may inspire others to follow your lead.
- Speak with Ringleader: Gossip starts somewhere. Typically a group of gossipers has a ringleader who instigates the negative conversation and encourages others to participate. Identify this individual and pull them into a private conversation. Try to provide specific examples of how their conversations are negatively affecting the environment, and even their coworkers. They may be unaware of the repercussions of their gossiping and demonstrating the fallout could change their behaviors.
- Report to a Manager: Gossip can get out of hand fast. If you’re concerned that workplace gossip is pushing a breaking point, with you or a peer, you may need to make a manager or supervisor aware of the situation so they can rectify it. They may already be aware of the situation but providing specific examples and identities of perpetrators can be helpful in stopping gossip in its tracks.
The Golden Rule
The truth is no one is going to stop talking. Gossip is going to happen whether we intentionally participate or not. The best thing you can do is treat your colleagues the way you would want to be treated and be a positive influence on your immediate environment by providing encouragement and support to your peers.
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