As Founder of Handel Group Corporate Coaching – and coach to our top executive clients – I invariably find that when I start working with an individual or team … everyone is gossiping. It’s just a way of life in their workplace and everyone thinks it’s just fine. In fact, the employees actually argue that it makes them feel better to “get stuff off their chest” and then go about their day. I don’t buy that theory! And I tell anyone who throws it at me, “I think you just sold out.”
I’ve been asked to address this topic numerous times – at WSJ.com, Businessweek.com, and the International Newsmedia Marketing Association World Conference 2010 as a speaker. Time after time, here’s what I say:
It is a crime to gossip. It’s a crime to listen or participate in gossip. Yes, to listen too! If you let X person tell you about Y person and you can’t do anything about it because you are not their boss, what are you really listening for? To be friends with X? To hope X will listen to you when you want to gossip about another co-worker? Unless you are listening to coach them to go back to Y and do something constructive to improve a situation or relationship, what are you accomplishing?
The Truth About Gossip
Gossip is a form of manipulation. It frequently comes from being hurt, offended or scared. Gossip is a theory that we develop in our own heads – or with the collusion of our friends, family and co-workers – as a way of building a case against someone by bringing individuals into cahoots to adopt our theory. Theories are usually just excuses for not finding out what is really motivating the person we’re gossiping about.
Gossip is a coward’s way of not dealing with a relationship head-on. It comes from a person not having the integrity or the audacity to deal straight with an issue or a person. They can’t bring themselves to engage in the real conversation (which they fear), so they go underground with it.
Gossip typically concerns very upsetting issues – issues that need to be addressed. So, usually what folks are gossiping about is important to them, and not simply an act of meanness or idle entertainment. When it IS just mean entertainment, you should stop that immediately too! Engaging in meanness is toxic to them and to you! So help them.
Direct Them to the Source
If you are coaching them in how to work directly with Y, then give them a time limit so it doesn’t become an open-ended gripe-fest. And give them a deadline by which you want them to have spoken to Y constructively. Furthermore, if they don’t go speak to Y by the deadline, you will call them out on it. You will say, “You said you were going to tackle this. Why haven’t you?”
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Why do it this way? Because you want the culture of your company to be one of dealing head on with upsetting issues. Gossip may be a lot of things, but it is not a way to deal with issues head on!
Dare Them to Have a Hard Conversation
If it’s something they are upset about or outraged about, the real dare for them is to figure out how to communicate it and address it without getting them or the person in trouble.
Most people justify to themselves why they should not have a hard conversation. So, the coaching here is to advise them to stop passing the buck and getting away with it. People who gossip really want to make a change and impact something. Teach them that they are just being a self-justifying “chicken” who should figure out how to frame the problem and attack it and have the courage to deal. When they do, they will be thrilled and proud. And you will be too.