As an entrepreneur, you should treat gossip among the members of your team as a reduction in productivity at best, and at worst, an indication of unhappy, un-empowered, or non-collaborative employees. As a leader, you should be asking yourself if you are the problem, and working hard to improve the situation before it gets out of hand, causing lost clients as well as lost productivity.
Occasionally I see articles, like this one from Monster.com, that claim gossip in the workplace can be beneficial in getting unspoken information out in the open for leaders to see, or it allows people to release pent-up negative energy before it explodes. Good gossip, as opposed to the malicious kind, some argue, might promote camaraderie and accountability on the team.
I personally think that good gossip is an oxymoron, since most dictionary definitions agree that the essence of gossip is sharing personal details about others that are not confirmed as being true. In any case, it behooves every entrepreneur and business leader to keep their antennas up for an increase in gossip, and know how to address the problem without causing more.
I recently saw some good insights on this challenge in the classic book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership,” by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp. They concur with me that gossiping is a key indicator of an unhealthy organizational culture, and one of the fastest ways to derail creativity. They summarized the following key motivators for gossiping:
- Make others appear wrong. Many team members relate to others on the team from a one-up or one-down position: They see each person’s position as either less than or more than their own. Gossip is a way to engage in one-upmanship, relieving them from feeling inferior. It allows people to twist reality to make others wrong so they can be right.
- Gain validation for a personal view. People’s egos live in a world where they are either right or wrong. Since they don’t want to be wrong, gossip allows them the opportunity to validate their righteous perspective. Gossip provides the vehicle to bounce off our thoughts with friends and associates to gain validation and support.
- Control others not under their authority. By gossiping, team members feed their judgments to others, manipulating the information flow and attempting to control the beliefs and behaviors of others. This is often driven by fear of their real persuasive ability, or lack of confidence in the organizational hierarchy or decision making process.
- Get more individual attention. Absent something meaningful to share with others, team members may choose to reveal a critical or private story about someone else to keep some attention on themselves. Unfortunately, spreading gossip or rumors is like buying attention; it’s temporary and has little foundation.
- Divert attention from possible weakness. When someone feels vulnerable, gossip is a great way to shift potential negative attention to someone else. For example, team members may gossip about the personal lives of their boss or business leaders to highlight faults, making their own faults less significant.
- Avoid face-to-face negotiation and conflict. A popular reason for gossiping in teams is a concern that direct opinions or preferences are going to upset someone. Thus they vent to people not directly related to the issue, such as friends and other team members, somehow hoping that will get the message across with having to confront anyone.
Gossip doesn’t work without a willing listener, so agreeing to listen is really as contributory as speaking it. Team members who refuse to listen will kill gossiping as effectively as no speakers. The authors agree with me in observing that candor and authentic expression of feelings and facts are more effective in communication and maintaining the health of the organization.
The only way to really clean up gossiping is to reveal both the gossiper and the listener to each other, to the person about whom they have been gossiping, and to clearly delineate the relevant business facts from the stories. People who refuse to change need to be removed from the team before they destroy it.
Every business needs creative energy and collaboration to survive in today’s competitive environment, and these are undermined wherever gossip is present. It only gets worse if you pretend you don’t hear it.