We’ve all done it, some of us have been the subject of it, and there’s no doubt that it exists in almost every workplace – office gossip! Just the utterance of these two words will either make you cringe or start salivating.
Of course we all know we shouldn’t gossip, but we’re human and for some reason, many of us just can’t help ourselves. I’d like to think that most people don’t intend any harm rather that it’s a way to be accepted at work, to stay relevant or simply to make time at the office more enjoyable. Unfortunately, there are some out there who purposely and maliciously use gossip to malign and harm their co-workers. Fortunately, not all gossip is negative.
A few years ago I was introduced to the work of Anne Litwin, a consultant, coach, trainer and simply extraordinary woman. While studying a group of professional women for her doctoral dissertation Shadow and Light: A Study of Patterns of Relationship Among Women in the Workplace, Litwin found that when there was supportive and positive discourse about a woman who was not in the room, even if the conversation was intended to help the woman, it was labeled as gossip. This positive discourse was “not distinguished from interchange designed to disparage or complain about another woman not in the room.” Litwin further realized that this type of supportive exchange and sharing among women was a way for them to bond and create stronger connections. She also knew there was no language for this positive talk. Litwin, consequently created a name – transknitting – “the transfer of information (trans) for the purpose of looping in (knitting) information about others to form or maintain a sense of community.”
It’s fantastic that we now have a way to separate the positive talk, transknitting, from the negative talk, gossip. But, all too often we work in environments that seem to thrive on ugly, office gossip. The ultimate dilemma is how to navigate tricky office politics and make office gossip work for you, not against you.
If it doesn’t involve you, stay out of it
Easy to say, but extremely hard to do. We often have good intentions of staying out of the gossip then someone comes along and shares a juicy morsel that you can’t help but tell your friend. It’s like going on a diet – you do pretty well the first day or two, then you just can’t stand it and cheat.
According to Peter Vajda, Ph.D., “we can stop gossiping in the workplace only when an inner desire emerges from a deep sense of integrity and authenticity, and a conscious desire to be harmless…in our interactions with others.” Vajda suggests that we can coach ourselves to stop gossiping by keeping in mind and considering certain questions each time we’re faced with a situation, such as:
- Why am I engaging in gossiping or supporting others who do so?
- What does gossiping get me?
- Is there another way to get this same result without harming another?
- Would I repeat this gossip directly to the person it’s about?
- Would I want to be quoted on TV or in the papers or in the company newsletter?
- Would I encourage my children to engage in this behavior?
- Do I feel ethical when I’m gossiping?
Last year, my eleven year old daughter went through a very difficult time at school because another kid was gossiping about one of her friends. She interjected herself in the middle of it with the intention of standing up for her friend. Needless to say, she ended up being the ‘bad guy’ with both her friend and the other kid mad at her then they both started gossip about my daughter. I began having conversations with my daughter using Vadja’s self-coaching philosophy, with a bit of a different approach and different questions. It’s worked very well. She’s 10 weeks into this school year and no drama!
If you can’t stay out of it, solve it
Sometimes, even though we try, we get sucked in. When you find yourself dealing with office gossip, use it as an opportunity to flex your problem solving skills. Since most office gossip starts with some truth, it’s also true that a part or all of whatever that truth is has caused a problem or issue for someone. If someone didn’t have an issue, there wouldn’t be any gossip.
If you can solve the problem or resolve the issue, you will not only stop the gossip, but you’ll benefit as well. In addition to garnering a little more respect and credibility from your peers, you may get more visibility, recognition and respect from your boss or other leaders. Having a reputation as a problem solver rather than a gossipmonger will serve you well if you want to advance your career.
What else could be true?
Most of the gossip swirling around your office is misinformation or half-truths spread with speculation, assumption or innuendo. Office gossip usually starts with some small nugget of truth, then someone’s insecurity, jealousy, malice or wild imagination spins the truth into something else.
When you’re faced with gossip, you can help to clarify the situation, even end the story, by asking, “what else could be true?” Ask questions that help you discern the facts of the situation. Then instead of spreading someone else’s story, only share the facts. Keep your speculation and assumptions out of it. In the case of gossip, the old saying is true – when you assume, it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’
Don’t put yourself in the position of being the ass who spreads bad information; instead, make sure you speak only in terms of fact and truth.
Here’s a tip. If the gossip is about you instead of playing the victim or trying to fight the gossip, which very seldom works and often backfires, try to figure out what started the gossip then address it directly and truthfully.
Make the negative office gossip positive
Office gossip frequently rears its ugly head when there’s a change in the workplace – a reorganization or job restructuring; when someone gets hired, fired or promoted; or when there changes with the company, clients or projects. You can take advantage of these situations to spread good rather than bad.
For example, everybody’s buzzing a potential new client your co-worker was supposedly assigned to. Don’t add to the rumors and speculate why your co-worker got the assignment instead of you or someone else, try responding to the negative gossip in a positive way, “I hear Joan’s a great negotiator. If she signs the new client, it’ll be good for the company.”
A recent Forbes article calls office gossip “professional kryptonite.” The author states that, “although gossip is a natural desire, engaging in it reduces our professional power. It shows a lack of self-control and creates unwanted professional distraction — not to mention it can tarnish the brand we’ve worked so hard to build.”
Instead branding yourself as the office gossip, choose to be positive and transknit instead. If you do you’ll be able to make office gossip work for you, not against you.
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