Talking Behind The Backs of Others

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctor about gossip: We have is that people in meetings don’t say anything, but when the meeting is over, they talk about other people behind their backs.

In our company there are some managers who are usually afraid to speak honestly to people’s face, so they do it behind their backs. This behavior is extremely unprofessional and exacts a price.

Another problem we have is that people in meetings don’t say anything, but when the meeting is over, they talk about other people behind their backs.What do you think is the implication for a company’s success when people are talking behind the backs of others?

Signed, Prefer Directness

Dear Prefer Directness:

I combined your two questions since they both refer to a lack of directness. I’m wondering if this is more of an academic question than a real-life one, but I’ll attempt to respond in a way that is effective for both approaches. First, of course, we all would probably agree that talking negatively about people when they’re not around can cause problems–although most of us have done it and will do it. Such behavior can cause long-term conflict, failure to cooperate and failure to communicate about important matters–all which can result in reduced efficiency and effectiveness. Whether or not there is a dollar result to that would probably depend upon many factors.

The reality is that few people want to say directly to someone, “The way you laugh at the end of sentences is not only distracting, it completely eliminates your credibility.” Or, “You came across as being arrogant today.” Or, “Wow, your breath smells bad!” Often they don’t even want to say, “I think there are other options we should consider. May I suggest those?” So, why do they wait and say all of those things when the person isn’t around?

Probably because they know they have a sympathetic audience and they think it’s safe. (Until one of those people tells the person being talked about!) The truth is that if people didn’t listen, no one would talk about others, but they DO listen.

One of Dr. Gorden’s frequent comments is that work groups should talk about talk. One aspect of that is that groups should meet now and then and come to an understanding about what is acceptable and what is not in work place talk. For example, the decision could be that it’s acceptable to disagree as long as it’s done courteously. It’s acceptable to bring a personal concern to someone’s attention as long as it’s done in private. The flip side of that is that in exchange, the person whose idea or behavior is being critiqued must be willing to accept the critique without becoming angry or hurt. Tough to do!

We also need to talk about listening. Refusal to listen to gossip, negative talk and unpleasant conversations, would shut it all done very soon.But, let’s say that there is an environment in which people can discuss things directly, but they don’t. Instead they bad-mouth people behind their backs, or mock them for their ideas in meetings and so forth. Your question is, what impact could that have on the success of a business? My answer is that it depends upon the size of the business and the nature of the meetings and relationships. Usually it’s difficult to know why a business is successful and why it is not.

Certainly poor communications can detract from success, because it detracts from the elements that help to create success: Innovation, confidence, analysis and synthesis of ideas, solving problems in a way that leads to improvement, and similar elements. Even miserable companies with miserably unhappy people can rock along and make a profit for a long time. The key point is not that they will go bankrupt if people don’t communicate well, it’s that they could perhaps make even more profit over a longer period of time, if everyone felt good about themselves and the organization. I also think that when someone has a business or is the CEO or manager or supervisor of an organization, there is an ethical and social responsibility to help create and keep a work environment that is fulfilling and respectful.

Life is tough enough on all of us, without feeling that we are being talked about all the time at work. So, even though it would be impossible to know all of the negative results that come from negative talk behind the backs of others, we all know there ARE negative results and we should all take responsibility for stopping it when we hear it.I hope this long answer to your short question provides you with some ideas that are helpful. Best wishes to you.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.