You hear a lot of of talk today about the importance of workplace culture, especially when it comes to attracting good employees. We’ve all read that forward-thinking companies have an advantage in this labor market.
But there’s an equally important aspect of workplace culture that I don’t hear discussed as much. It connects to a negative part of human nature that can cause harm to every member of a team.
I’m talking about gossip.
Most people agree that gossip hurts an organization, yet those same people—and I count myself here, too—will bond with a colleague by putting another colleague down behind their back. It’s an easy way to build rapport with coworkers and feel like one of the cool kids.
But that feeling comes at a cost. Gossip hurts morale and damages productivity. It’s also frequently misunderstood.
Conventional wisdom says that women gossip more than men, and while it’s true that there’s a difference, it’s a lot less of a disparity than people think. Gossip accounts for 55 percent of male conversations and 67 percent of female discussions, according to a study from the Social Issues Research Center. That’s a lot of men talking smack.
Next, it’s useful to understand the difference between an occasional pointed comment and someone who consistently says negative things about the people around them. One is a fact of life, while the other is a problem that needs addressing. Finally, there’s the issue of managers taking part.
I’ve read a number of articles about dealing with gossip within your company, and they all have titles like, “How Good Managers Deal with Gossip,” and “Workplace Gossip: What Crosses the HR Line?” But none of them address the all-too-common problem of management who gossip with their coworkers—even direct reports—about the shortcomings of other employees.
Company owners and managers are responsible for inspiring others to bring their best selves to work. When they say negative things about someone on the team, it’s actually more destructive than that same sentiment would be coming from an employee. Not only does gossip from management create a culture where putting down other people is OK, but the difference in power between the manager and team members amplifies the effect of what was said, making it more likely to spread around the company and become adopted as truth.
So, when gossip starts, cut it off with a friendly comment or move the conversation in a new direction. People will soon notice that you’re not participating. And talk to your team members about gossip’s destructive force. This will change your workplace and over time, you’ll become a trusted ally and force of good in the world.