Gossip: is it a symptom of company sickness?

by Nicola Middlemiss04 Jul 2016
According to social scientist Joseph Grenny, workplace gossip cultivates an unhealthy, company-wide social system that can be difficult stamp out. Here’s how you get rid of it for good.

Firstly, Grenny said it’s essential that leaders understand the three important purposes that workplace gossip serves; informational, emotional and interpersonal.

Informational
Gossip can become a valued source of information for those who mistrust formal channels. This is a problem in itself – if your employees don’t trust you to give them the information that matters, you’re already doing something seriously wrong.

It’s also a way of gaining valued information that might not be openly shared because of social conventions - “Don’t get Sarah to call them – she’s rude and abrasive.”

Emotional 

“[Gossip] serves as an emotional release for anger or frustration,” revealed Grenny – if a colleague has let you down or made you look bad, it’s often a way for workers to vent. “Colin was completely unprepared in that meeting – he made me look like an idiot.”

Interpersonal

When employees are in conflict with one another, they naturally seek out others who feel the same - “I noticed Rebecca vetoed your suggestion this morning, she did the same to me yesterday.”

Gossip might seem like an effective way of achieving all three goals but that’s only true in an unhealthy social system – said Grenny. There are much healthier ways to handle such situations.

So gossip isn’t a problem – it’s a symptom of a greater sickness.

“We become purveyors of [gossip] when we feel we can’t raise sensitive issues more directly,” said Grenny, “so we natter with neighbours rather than confronting offenders.”

“The problem with gossip is that it reinforces the sickness that generates it,” explains Grenny. “It’s based on a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I lack trust or efficacy I engage in gossip — which robs me of the opportunity to test my mistrust or inefficacy. The more I use it the more I reinforce my need for it.”

So how do we cure the core problem?

Stop enabling

Encourage employees to call out gossiping – not to embarrass the gossiper but to bring the issue into the open, advises Grenny.

“Gossipers are rewarded when others respond passively — by simply listening,” he explains. “To stop it, force it into the open.”

Build trust 

“Reduce the supply of gossip by decreasing demand,” said Grenny. Create opportunities for your employees to raise any issues they might have and make sure high-level execs are willing to give real answers and explanations.

When concerns are addressed in open, there’s no opportunity for them to grow or worsen under the surface.

Build skill

Often your employees gossip because they’ve never learned how else to handle an uncomfortable situation. Grenny said leaders must provide employees with “alternative skills and strategies for surfacing emotionally and politically risky concerns.”

“Gossip is not a problem; it’s a symptom,” said Grenny. “The symptom disappears when a critical mass of leaders stop enabling it, create trust in healthy communication channels, and invest in building employees’ skills to use them.”

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