November 25, 2019

Workplace gossip is inevitable. Here’s how to keep it from turning toxic

Gossip: It’s not always your enemy  

We all hear the same negative connotations around “gossip.” The word is associated with slacking off, stirring up drama, and pushing a wedge between coworkers. But gossip isn’t inherently bad, and can even be healthy and productive! 

Good gossip fosters relationships 

Gossip is, in its purest form, a method of informal communication. In many ways, giving employees space to talk amongst themselves helps them bond as a team. They’re more invested in each other, they feel supported through the tough moments, and they keep each other up to speed (good news travels fast along the company grapevine). 

Even negative gossip can be productive in that gives you a sense of a team’s pulse. When the same grumblings come up regularly, it’s a strong hint that something needs to improve. Sure, you might wish employees came to you directly with those complaints, but fear of retribution is a big problem in today’s workplace, even if that fear is sometimes unfounded. So a healthy amount of gossip can help systemic issues come to your attention. 

Bad Gossip fosters animosity 

The time for concern is when the chatter stops being helpful. When it consumes everyone’s time and snowballs into an ongoing negative narrative—one that employees feel compelled to play on repeat. When it becomes more about competitiveness and pettiness between coworkers is when relationships sour, rumors spread, and distrust starts to fester. 

If you hear gossip that’s mean-spirited, misleading, or simply untrue, then you might be dealing with Bad Gossip. 

A dynamic duo: toxic culture and negative gossip

The most common spark of Bad Gossip is a toxic work environment. When employees feel unsafe, it destroys any trust they had in colleagues. And, as harmful gossip spreads, it exacerbates a toxic climate further. The sooner the cycle is broken, the better. Here are some signs of a toxic workplace: 

  • No transparency. When leaders make all decisions behind closed doors, employees become wary every time leadership meets. And why shouldn’t they be concerned? At companies with poor transparency, employees rarely hear explanations for decisions that affect their work, are expected to accept them uncritically. Employees begin to speculate, and an ugly game of Telephone begins.
  • Disengaged staff. When employees don’t participate, it’s a bad sign. They might be uncomfortable speaking up because colleagues have attacked their contributions (or they’ve seen such attacks on their peers). We hear about bully bosses a lot, but bullies exist in all levels of the company, and if meetings are suspiciously quiet, there may be a bully in the mix. 
  • Aggressive competition. A little healthy competition can be a great thing. It promotes creative problem-solving and encourages employees to put their best foot forward for advancement and exciting projects. But if you’re seeing people step on each other and spread rumors about the competition, you may have a toxic culture on your hands. 
  • Finger-pointing. When the instinctive response to failure is blame, your people don’t feel safe to make a mistake at work. They’d rather throw each other under the bus than face the consequences of an error. This not only reduces accountability, but it hurts innovation — no one will try if they fear failure. 

When gossip in the workplace turns negative, it hurts in more than one way

Much of the impact of negative gossip is emotional. People stop trusting each other, stop taking risks, and stop speaking up. They feel undervalued, conspired against, and disrespected, and these emotions are rarely validated, thanks to the age-old tradition to keep quiet about your feelings at work.

“Bad Gossip” is only the symptom of your root problem.

Gossip can also take a toll on the bottom line. Unhappy employees are less productive and less innovative; they lack the initiative to problem-solve and will do the bare minimum to stay afloat. Teams that get caught up in negative gossip become too preoccupied and demotivated to perform well.

How to stop office gossip from crossing the line 

The best strategies leave room for productive conversations while eliminating the need for Bad Gossip. 

Set expectations. A Code of Conduct is a meaningful first step. Be clear about what cannot be tolerated but don’t go overboard: a strict no-tolerance policy is often mocked, not followed. The goal is to create a safe place for workplace relationships to thrive. 

Trust more. You invested time and resources into hiring the right people. Trust your judgment. A group of coworkers getting closer and having a little water-cooler chat isn’t the end of the world. Remember, it could make the workplace stronger and more effective. 

Encourage communication. Employees shouldn’t be afraid of confronting tough problems in the office. Your goal is to build a culture of communication where your staff can be open and honest with each other. If you give them a clear route to raise concerns, it’s less likely those concerns become the latest gossip. 

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