Gossip has its merits. It keeps people attuned to issues and concerns not otherwise expressed by formal methods of communication. For bosses, it’s a great way to get the pulse of a company while achieving retention and productivity goals. For employees, it’s critical in understanding the unwritten practices and policies of any organization.
However, by its inherent nature, gossip has negative impacts on individuals, groups and companies, and can strain or destroy relationships. People are naturally more likely to spread the negative aspects of what a company or individual has done than the positive ones. It’s impossible to eliminate gossip as long as people use it as a way to vent their frustrations with a person, situation or event; use it as a favorite pastime; or use it as a reason to connect with others and hurt anyone they see as “competition.”
Some people mistakenly believe that if gossip doesn’t matter to them, it shouldn’t matter to others. Handled incorrectly or not at all, gossip can ignite into something explosive that can lead companies to close their doors, good employees to depart for competitors, careers being sabotaged, and the creation of sacrificial lambs. Falsely believing that people shouldn’t be talking about “inside” issues won’t stop the gossip. In some cases, it can actually fuel it! It’s time for an intervention of good PR!
How can you use gossip to promote a positive workplace, while keeping your customers and employees happy and satisfied? How do you effectively handle the inevitable gossip that every company and organization must contend with, both internally and externally?
Talk with people, not about them.
Too often when things don’t go right we immediately seek to blame someone, whether warranted by facts or not, and let others know. Or we hear something and immediately call our closest friend or co-worker to tell them. That’s how most gossip gets started and then escalates. Avoid this problem by talking directly with those involved to get their version of events and focus on the facts. Normally you’ll find that while part of the rumor may be true, it usually is not as detrimental to the project or person(s) involved as it would initially appear. Then, you can bring everyone involved together to discuss a win-win outcome, deal with perceptions and create a positive process or system to move forward.
Be responsible for the words you chose to describe an issue or person.
Usually, they are more reflective of how we view our own weaknesses. A boss was lamenting how an employee was not being “collaborative” in his efforts to work with the group. In fact, the employee was simply being outspoken about a long-term issue and expressing his willingness to address it with others. The boss felt that everyone should be solely focused on their own work and not getting involved in everyone else’s job. Because of his incorrect use of the word “collaborative,” other employees were confused and feared losing their jobs for collaborating – or maybe for not collaborating. The company continues to struggle to retain key employees and provide quality products and services to their clients, uncertain whether to get involved to resolve issues or not.
We as human beings love to be offended!
And, we retaliate by spreading gossip about how someone offended us, when in fact they may have been simply making a statement or agreeing with us. A woman shared her experiences as a boss and the amount of turnover she had dealt with recently. The employee she was speaking to indicated that yes, in fact, she had heard about the turnover and the boss’ struggles. The boss was offended that the employee agreed with her and passed her over for a promotion, even though she was most qualified for the position. The boss told others that the employee would not make a good team player.
Find out the facts!
Too often we automatically respond to situations based on how we feel in the moment. Sometimes we feel the need to defend something we have said or done that was misunderstood by others. It may be too late, as the damage is done. Normally, anything can be resolved through effective communication and persuasive listening. It takes a willingness to really hear about others’ perceptions of the situation and clarify the facts. Only then can you move forward within the context of the company’s vision and values, and make a commitment to the welfare of the team.
A new boss once inherited an employee he did not like. The employee had many more years of experience than the boss, so the new boss felt intimidated. While working on a project, the employee complained that there were some ongoing problems that needed to be addressed. The boss then heard from others that they didn’t believe there were any ongoing problems, and that they didn’t wish to work with the negative employee! The boss then used this information to terminate the employee. The boss was uncomfortable learning how to build a team in an environment where employees didn’t automatically and simply agree with one another. Unfortunately the issue hasn’t gone away, and the rumor mill has labeled the boss’s team a “bad group to work with.” That division of the company will soon be closed down since they are not longer profitable.
If there’s an elephant in the room, address it!
It won’t go away on its own! Organizations have lost huge numbers of members, customers, employees and revenues by not addressing ongoing concerns. Companies have lost great employees and lots of money because it failed to handle issues effectively, or because of the proverbial “skeleton in the closet.” These types of things will eventually come back to haunt you if they are not addressed effectively. Even if it doesn’t seem like a problem to you, someone may see it as a problem, or make it a problem.
A female employee complained about her new female manager to the point of taking a different job with a male boss. However, that didn’t stop her from continuing to complain about this female manager, who was dealing with liability issues her predecessor hadn’t handled well. Eventually the female manager left, after filing a lawsuit for harassment. When the employee was finally asked why she kept complaining, she stated, “I just don’t like working with women bosses. And, I liked my former male boss better.” Usually when there is a spark, a fire will follow. Many other harassment suits followed and the company’s assets were sold.
Get everyone on the same page by helping them understand the bigger picture (vision) as well as the steps needed to achieve it (action plans).
Remember this is a process, not an event. Hire a facilitator to help everyone – executives, managers and employees – work through issues, particularly those that keep reoccurring. Be committed to handling other issues that will arise, as well. Train everyone to handle both the ‘people and material’ side of meetings.
Have your managers and executives work with a coach or mentor.
A third party can help support them in developing the competence and confidence to address concerns and opportunities that arise, as they arise. What they learn can be as simple as how to communicate with others, how to be heard by others, how to resolve conflict confidently, and how to be “politically correct.”
Don’t rely solely on email to convey important messages or resolve conflict.
The average person has the reading and writing ability of a sixth grader. As a result, messages can easily be misread or misunderstood due to varying education levels, reading and writing capabilities and/or the cultural definition of words. For example, you may interpret this article one way and focus on something in particular, while others may focus on something else of importance to them. Each reader will then convey to others their belief about whether this article was of value to them or not. A rumor has been started!
Be responsible for what you convey to others.
Too often we believe that it is others’ responsibility to understand what we meant, even if it’s not what we said. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world. Take time to check with the listener to hear what they’ve heard you say. The difference will be amazing.
There’s no getting around the fact that there will be gossip in almost every organization. How you use that fact, how you approach communicating with your staff, and how your company handles gossip, will have a huge impact on the success of your organization. Don’t make assumptions about how people receive and perceive information about the organization, the staff, and their own personal role, duties and performance. Taking a few very effective steps can significantly cut down on a lack of information, as well as miscommunication and misunderstanding that can start the gossip mill churning, fueling wild speculation, drama, hurt feelings and resentment.
© Jeannette L. Seibly, 2006-2007
Jeannette Seibly, Principal of SeibCo — your partner in developing work and career strategies for selection, results and growth, we improve your bottom line! Contact SeibCo, LLC @ 303-660-6388 or JLSeibly@comcast.net. Website: http://www.SeibCo.com