Gossiping Employees

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about gossip:

How should I deal with office gossips without stopping productivity?

Signed, In Charge

Dear In Charge:

Not all gossip is bad. We are social animals and we learn much about how to behave by listening to and talking with others about what is going on on-the-job and in our personal lives. But you are right to want to stomp out gossip that hurts productivity. I gather that you sent in this question because of specific overly talkative individuals in your workplace. I expect that those who chat rather than work do so because they do not see that their pay is directly linked to their work. In short they are not owners in your enterprise. And making individuals real, not just psychological owners, will make a big difference.

Real owners take care to make their time and conversations count. Since you have not provided a description of the specific behavior that prompts your question or of your workplace, I am referring you to several Q&As that appear in our Archives and also I am copying an extended piece I have written in a manuscript I wrote likening good manners of golf to good manners in the workplace. Perhaps these thoughts will prompt you to bring your work groups together to confer on what talk is productive and what is not. Q&As in our Archives: How Can We Combat Gossip Without Offending? http://workplacedoctors.com/wpdocs/archive/q265.htm How Can We Stomp Out Rumors? http://workplacedoctors.com/wpdocs/archive/q155.htmand Can A New Manager Stop Rumors? http://workplacedoctors.com/wpdocs/archive/q302.htm

Now from my manuscript Going For The Green: Gossip Is A Boomerang. Our Ask the Workplace Doctors site had received many questions about gossip. One woman asked, “How can I stop gossiping?” and she signed her name as The Office Gossip: I am the office gossip, and I messed up pretty badly with my boss. She asked me to do her a favor (not stating it was confidential, but I should have realized), and I opened my big mouth once again. I have yet to see her, but this could be a major problem as far as trust goes. Or she may just blow it off; maybe not realizing how the information got out. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this. It wasn’t a major thing, but still it was something that could have been told by her if she felt like it.

I am striving to not gossip, but it can be very hard at times. I have resorted to writing things down, telling friends outside of work (they don’t care, but at least I get it out) to stop myself from saying things at work. My boss, in the past, has called me a big mouth! I didn’t get too mad, because it’s true. But to do it again, I feel so stupid. Another small point, this gossip is not restricted to people I don’t like. It can be good, bad, about my best work friend, even myself!

The only thing that seems to stop me is someone specifically saying, “This is confidential.” I have started to ask people if things said are in confidence, but this gets ridiculous after a few times.; The Office Gossip The Workplace Doctor’s advice sent the Office Gossip reads: How refreshing it is to meet one who “fesses up. Your recent passing along what should be kept quiet should be another wake up call. You cannot undo that gossip, but you can ask yourself why. Why do you tell everything you know? Probably, your answer to that question is that you want to show that you are in the know. You won’t live down the loudmouth label until you are indeed more reserved and discrete. Don’t let that worry you. It is past if you make it past. Smile, laugh gently at yourself, offer to help when needed, be friendly, and congratulate yourself the next time you look in the mirror because you are seeing the person you want to become.

Possibly I should have told Ms. Office Gossip of Deborah Dobson, co-author of Managing Up: 59 Ways to Build a Career; Advancing Relationship With Your Boss. Dobson points to the old maxim loose lips sink ships.3 A strong boss-bossed relationship hinges on trust, and guarding one’s tongue is essential to that. Or even more pointedly perhaps I should have advised Ms. Office Gossip to abide by Beauregard’s Law: When you’re up to your nose, keep your mouth shut.4 Winning trust depends on being a good listener and maintaining a confidence.

What Is Gossip and Why Do We? In addition to acquiring more information so that we might cope better with life’s uncertainties, curiosity springs from wanting to understand human foibles; the juicier the better. We listen to and pass on rumors because of our need to know that we are as good as or better than others. We each want to learn that “they are like me in their drives, ambitions, and weaknesses or why they are different.”

We learn how to live by watching others and by trial balloons about what is acceptable and taboo. We also need small talk to acknowledge that we are not robots. We are members of social groups and talk is necessary for working and living together. Yet human history tells us that talk about other people too often focuses on their weaknesses and problems rather on their strengths and successes. Negative talk about others is known as gossip. Much talk about other people’s business and personal lives, however true it may be, also is rightly called gossip.

So can we find a balance between leading stoic robot lives and being bodies busy about others’ personal business? Beyond wanting to know how we measure up as a reason for gossip, malicious rumors spring from an “I’m OK-she or he is not OK” attitude. This kind of gossip is meant to make one’s self look good by making another person look bad. Gossip can’t be prevented; even one who walked on water was rumored to hang out with sinners and loose women. Gossip can cause those who are its victims to be so stressed they hate to come to work and sometimes quit their jobs. Regrettably, humankind is not always kind.

Sometimes we are akin to chickens that, when crowded, peck another; a phenomenon sociologists call the pecking order. By putting others down those who do so, whether intentionally or not, are trying to boost themselves up. Gossip at work can hurt. Gossip Can Be Divisive. The bunker of cliques delays progress to the green of amiability. When Paula Gamonal worked in Information Technology with Wells Fargo, she witnessed what goes on in the world of business. She is author of Taming the Dragons- 50 Essays from the Business World. In the essay “Tribal Warfare: Dealing with Cliques in the Workplace,” she explains that almost every human situation includes alliances, and it is when they become exclusive that they deserve the label of clique.

In the workplace, clique warfare is destructive. Morale suffers, and turnover increases. Cliquishness is unpleasant, costly, and sometimes deadly. Being excluded by cliques has on occasions caused an isolated co-worker to go postal and target specific co-workers and supervisors. Gamonal reasons that cliques are based on dislikes, alliances and exclusions. Consequently they cause invisible yet real barriers between groups and those kept out. Cliques are reluctant to help one another. They don’t share information and sometimes even actively hinder another person or group’s success. She says: Cliques can be based on tenure, profession, social or economic class, race or ethnicity, gender, or any other factor that differentiates people from one another. I’ve even seen workplaces with cliques of smokers versus nonsmokers, cliques of coffee-drinkers versus non-coffee drinkers, and Friends watchers (a popular TV show) versus non-Friends watchers!5 We all enjoy the camaraderie of people we share an interest or characteristic with, but when cliques become too exclusive, or destructive to those outside the group, the company suffers. Crucial information is miscommunicated or omitted, deadlines are missed, equipment is hoarded, and employees will sit idle rather than help someone from outside the group.

Avoiding cliques does not mean avoiding friendships. Rather it means guarding against being in an in-group that consciously or unintentionally excludes others. Seeking contact with members of different groups can keep you in the fairway within clear sight of the green of amiability. Researching Can’t Just Stop It, I found several quotations that I chose to include. There is no shortage of quotable quotations about gossip that one might post at the water cooler: Who gossips to you will gossip of you.

~Turkish proverb~ Gossip is sometimes referred to as halitosis of the mind. ~ Source Unknown

~ Ah, well, the truth is always one thing, but in a way it’s the other thing, the gossip, that counts. It shows where people’s hearts lie.

~ Paul Scott ~ The things most people want to know about are usually none of their business. ~ George Bernard Shaw ~ The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but also to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

~Dorothy Nevill Gossips, especially vicious ones, have a way of alienating others all by themselves.; Dave & Dee’s free advice Internet site. Dave has an MD, and Dee a PhD

These quotations illustrate the mixed message at play in the workplace, and elsewhere; we both love and hate gossip. One manager of a ten-member work group ventured, “Gossip is destructive to team spirit. It can make the workplace hostile. It should be illegal. Spreading rumors should be against corporate policy. I think it should be terminable behavior.” I replied to him that creating such a rule with termination as the end result will pose two questions that are difficult to answer: First, since rumors are so fleeting and pervasive, how will you identify the originator with certainty? Second, once the rumor has been spotted, will you terminate everyone down the line who communicated it? A staff of ten might end up being less than two. Working solo then should stop gossip.

The Friendly Message Of Silence. Too much talk distracts. As I worked on my speech, I thought about how golf crowds at tournament differ from crowds watching team sports such as basketball and football. Ugly displays have soured my attendance at basketball games, a game I have enjoyed since my youth. Today’s basketball crowds frequently make distracting noise and movement while a player is concentrating on shooting a free throw, and at football games they are far from quiet when an opposing quarterback is calling signals. Golf rules make such distracting behavior just what it is; rude and malicious.

One of golf’s most important rules is silence. Jim Corbett in The General Concepts of Good Golf Etiquette explains: Golf is a game that requires a lot of concentration. If you are trying to make a putt, or hit your tee shot into a narrow Fairway, it will be much more difficult if someone is laughing, rattling their clubs, or running around the tee or green. Quiet is required on the golf course. Golf requires lots of concentration, and even if the people in your immediate group don’t seem to be bothered, there are other groups all around you. So keep you voice down.  Gary McCord in Golf for Dummies admonishes: Don’t talk while someone is playing a stroke. Give your partners time and silence while they are analyzing the situation, making their practice swings, and actually making their swing for real. Don’t stand near them or move about, either, especially when you’re on the greens. Stay out of their peripheral vision while they are putting. Don’t stand near the hole or walk between your partner’s ball and the hole. Even be mindful of your shadow. The line of a putt,” the path it must follow to the hole,” is holy ground.

Might this be a rule and advice that should be posted in the workplace? What is an assertive way to stop over-talkative people in your workplace? These are usually people who come into your office or work station and have a small bit of information that is important but end up staying at least 15 minutes. This ruins your train of thought on the task at hand. Sometimes they do not even have anything relevant about work to say! Is there any behavioral clue or gesture you could use besides just saying, “Say it and Leave?” How would you cope with a co-worker who is a busybody?

There really is no nice way to say, “SHUT UP?” The best you can do is to turn away, look at your watch, shuffle your feet, and tap the desk with your pencil, giving body signals that say I’m busy. You may be able to arrange your desk so that it does not face the door. If so, someone who comes to see you must stand while you reluctantly, slightly turn your desk chair toward the intruder while keeping most of your body directed to your desk. You can post several signs and affirmations such as: I’m all yours for two minutes. Then it’s back to work! Or Quiet! Genius cannot talk and attend to his/her job at the same time! Or This train stops for only a minute and then must make tracks. Perhaps the best sign is simply, Please Don’t Interrupt My Work.

You can be up front with talkative souls, even your supervisor, by saying, “Can we continue this chit chat at the break, after work, or next week? I need to concentrate now.” However, it is good to be someone coworkers want to talk to. Don’t lose that something. You don’t want to be all work and no play. So be friendly but focused on to your job. Another tact is to channel social talk to work-related topics. That at least will get rid of the idle talk and focus attention to quality improvement. One sure, but less than tactful, topic that can make your point is embedded in the question:

How can we make the best use of our time? Focused, but friendly, means you are there with purpose, but you are not super-serious on the golf course or in the workplace so much so that nothing else matters. A golf partner is allowed to advise a partner, but the nature of advice and when it is given will tell whether it helps or annoys the other’s stroke. The rule of thumb is that negative advice tends to cause a partner to do exactly what is warned against, just like telling someone not to think of a white horse while taking a test provokes the mind to focus on a white horse. Giving only positive advice also has its problems. For example, saying “Jud, on this drive put it right down the middle” may cause Jud to think, “He has seen one of my last times off the tee, to hook.” Consequently Jud tenses up rather than relaxes. Some who play together have found that negative, playful remarks are more helpful that positive. For example, “Don’t screw up” or “Put it into the woods” may spur a partner to do the opposite. That counter intuitive principle for what works on the golf course with a partner also works with co-workers.

After reflecting on the pros and cons of gossip, feel free to contact me further. I would like to learn what you have tried and propose to manage gossip and not allow it to frustrate productivity. Working together with hands, head, and heart sometimes requires focused talk about talk; that takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden