How much gossip is there in your workplace? You know the score – someone leaves a room and suddenly there are the rolled eyes, the muttered words – the furtive looks. What are they saying? Well, we’re always the one’s coming back to a suddenly hushed room, so we aren’t exactly sure, but we do know that gossip in workplaces can run rife. A research team from at the University of Amsterdam found that 90 percent of total office conversation qualifies as gossip. Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that gossip makes up 15 percent of office e-mail. The perfect cauldron is in place –  9+ hours in one place, big personalities, small rooms, ambition and disappointment – it’s a heady mix that can make gossip a real problem in the workplace.

Gossip is all about the tribe

Your workplace friends put you in a pecking order and define who you are. Are you the professional type who ill rise above gossip – or are you prepared to get down and dirty? Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D., points out that there are two sides to the act of gossip. The first side being the one who is sharing the gossip, and ultimately enjoying his or her self while doing it. The other side would of course be the one that the gossip is about, the one who experiences the effects of the gossip. Gossiping forms a tribe. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has likened our need to communicate verbally to chimpanzees, who use grooming as a means of socialization, saying “gossip-as-grooming hypothesis is one of several theories of language evolution emphasizing the social rather than cognitive aspects of language.” It isn’t so much what we’re saying but the act of speaking to each other that contains meaning.

Just like shared joke or a memory, gossip could be as powerful as a day out or a group learning experience. By sharing a  secret, your making a real bond in the workplace. The problem is that instead of having a positive day out and practising kindness, your tribe is being borne from sharing views and opinions about issues and other colleagues, sometimes in unflattering ways.

Silence isn’t helping

You might think that launching a new initiative would set the gossip wheels in motion, but it’s actually the opposite – not communicating, or communicating infrequently when you feels its appropriate. For example, whilst sales are tanking, some colleagues have ‘moved on’ and there are rumours of your competitors stepping into your space, you should absolutely speak up honestly about what’s happening. Stay quiet so you don’t ‘unsettle’ and you misunderstand how human psychology works.

No laughing matter

You might be reading this and thinking that gossip can be ‘good gossip’ or ‘bad gossip’. Of course, the bad gossip would be something really vicious and untrue. You know that an outright lie is something you absolutely don’t want in your business. But what about the ‘other gossip” – perhaps about someone’s marriage, whether so-and-so gave so-and-so a ‘look’ or if someone’s had a promotion a bit ‘too early?” This all had insidious undertones that absolutely needs to be stamped out. There is no good or bad gossip, there is only gossip that slowly brings down morale, erodes trust (even within the gossiping party – see ‘Mean Girls’ – and also, wastes business hours.) You can spot gossip by asking:

  • Is the information something negative about a third party that isn’t there to defend them self?
  • Does passing on this information make you feel that you are better than the person you are talking about?
  • Are you using the information that you are passing along to better yourself in some way?

In its extreme, it forms part of bullying and harassment behaviour.

How to stamp out workplace gossip 

You aren’t going to stamp out gossip really, but what you can do is try and give guidance on how you handle it. A training course on how to offer an impartial ear. A method for reporting behaviour you are uncomfortable with. A way to say ‘I’m not interested’ – without feeling uncomfortable when someone proffers up a nasty story or rumour. Employees often learn through the grapevine the types of behaviour that are appropriate and inappropriate, but perhaps it’s time that rules for gossip designed to hurt are more explicit?

Try and keep people informed. If you hear a rumour – your managers need to jump in and put out the fire. If there are recurrent rumours – or promotions made ‘too soon’ or people being ‘fired’ when in fact, they left of their own accord, let people know that whilst you can’t address cases or careers, that you can reiterate what your brand stands for and how you operate. A policy of dealing with gossip, an open door and immediate fire fighting should put the heat out of the situation, making a better workplace.

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