Gossip In the Workplace

In this new column for BusinessWeek, Beth Weissenberger, CEO and co-Founder of The Handel Group, a New York-based executive coaching firm, will be addressing the most common problems she finds in businesses, both large and small. This week, let's take on a biggie—gossip in the workplace. It may sound like a harmless, unavoidable by-product of corporate life, but don't be fooled: Left unchecked, gossip can wreak havoc on company morale and efficiency. When The Handel Group is hired to determine what isn't working in an organization, we always need to address the gossip issue. To be clear, when I say workplace gossip, I don't mean who had drinks with whom last night. I'm referring to talk between co-workers, managers, and executives about work-related matters to someone who can't do anything about it. This kind of complaining is a way of not dealing with something head-on, or as I call it, being a chicken. I know that workplace gossip is the norm. The tendency to complain is human. So what's the big deal? Workplace gossip is unproductive. It breeds resentment and becomes a roadblock to effective communication and collaboration. Does this mean that you shouldn't ever voice a negative opinion about anything at work, or that you should encourage your team not to question things? Of course not, The irony about workplace gossip is that it's often about things that really matter to the company or team and should be addressed. "Are there going to be layoffs?" "It's not fair that our department has to cut 20% from our travel-and-entertainment budget while other groups aren't being touched." "They're looking outside the company for a new boss." "I can't believe he didn't acknowledge me for my work and took the credit himself" That's why smart companies have a zero-tolerance policy toward gossip. A gossip ban starts at the topI know that sounds extreme, but I have seen the difference it makes when companies are smart enough to take such a stand. When I coach leaders and their teams, they realize the toxic effect gossip has on themselves, their coworkers, and the organization as a whole. When they stop, it means that the team has taken on being forthright and honest in its communication, dealing head-on with an issue through the person who can do something about it. This allows for teamwork, trust, communication—and therefore extraordinary results. So how do you put such a policy into effect? First, the leader has to be on board. Sometimes I work with the entire company, and that means that the CEO must declare: "No more gossip." It must otherwise be the most senior person of whatever department or group I'm dealing with. That person has to persuade everyone that office gossip won't be tolerated, why this is necessary, and that everyone is going to be held accountable. Make it O.K. for one person to call out another in a light-hearted way. Encourage employees to think of it as a game, with the prize being open communication and a positive work environment. Part of what distinguishes an extraordinary leader is the willingness to have important, and often scary, conversations. (There is an art to executing difficult conversations in a way that clears up an issue rather than starts a war, and I'll talk about that in a future column.) As part of the new agreement between co-workers, everyone has a responsibility to remind others when they are gossiping, to establish that they're not interested in partaking in gossip, and to encourage them to go directly to the person who can do something about it. be responsible and responsiveYou need to make it clear that even listening to gossip is a no-no. What? You can get zapped even if you just stand there and don't say a word? Yes. Gossip cannot exist without someone to tell it to. If you are not the person who can handle the specific issue that is being gossiped about and you are listening…then you are participating in gossip. The flip side is that leaders have to create the kind of workplace where it's safe for people to voice concerns and ask for clarity and action. One of the reasons gossip is so commonplace is that people can easily justify it. "I can't say that," "I will get fired if I say that," "the last person who said that got in trouble," "the culture here doesn't allow for the truth" And so on. Banish those excuses—and gossip—by being responsible and responsive. Stop and think for a minute. What have you been gossiping about? When have you listened to gossip and not encouraged someone to take action? If you are gossiping—and I bet you are—and you want to make a change, you should first commit to it by agreeing that you won't spread or listen to gossip and that you will discourage others from doing so. Next, responsibly clean up any messes you have already made so you can start with a clean slate. Third, tell your co-workers, managers, employees, and so forth that you want to be called on it if you inadvertently slip. Finally, start looking for the facts before you come up with your own conclusions. Start having the scary conversations. The company and your coworkers—and yes, you, too—really will benefit. You'll quickly gain a well-earned reputation as a straight shooter and a trusted leader.

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