Gossip: The Cancer for Trust and Team Dynamics

Colleagues gossiping with sad young businessman in foreground at

You see your staff gathered around the proverbial water cooler and connecting with co-workers. Perhaps they are catching up on what’s happened over the weekend. So, how does this inane behaviour become like a cancer? It happens when the conversation wanders off course and people start conversations with, “Did you hear that Sally in accounting…” Sometimes you may be inadvertently passing on dishonest and inaccurate information. I’ve worked with organizations where gossip was abundant and it appeared to be a symptom, as well as, cause of a dysfunctional team.

What began to happen, probably some years ago, was that people started to complain about each other making statements to one another that ‘she doesn’t even do her job’, ‘did you hear that …?’ The problem was twofold – the person was spreading gossip and it was based on a lie that someone had told. No one went directly to the person being gossiped about to see if it was an accurate statement and in actuality, it could be slanderous statement if it challenged the individual’s character. Gossip undermines people being direct with one another and resolving differences and challenges effectively.

Gossip is not helpful as it enables individuals to continually talk about other people with no accountability – often times team members will become pseudo-connected through this negativity. In other words, they become fused “as friends” through the common interest of criticizing another person. This is caused by the release of dopamine in the brain. So, when these individuals get together, they’ll fall back to their common interest which is gossip. It’s very rare to gossip about another’s strengths. Gossip tends to create cliques of individuals while it excludes others. This cancerous behaviour will undermine trust in one another. After all, if he says that about Sally, what would he say about me behind my back? These team dynamics create suspicion, mistrust and a negative workplace.

When there is a performance issue, the gossip can play the role of sweeping it under the proverbial rug. This happens as people complain together and avoid the direct conversations that might result in awareness and personal growth for another person. In this way, everyone is supporting the inappropriate behaviour. Gossip avoids the personal risk of having a difficult conversation.

If people are gossiping in your organization, challenge it by developing a zero tolerance policy and hold people accountable (including yourself). Let them know that gossip will not be tolerated and what the consequences will be should they continue.  If you know specific individuals who are frequent gossipers, then speak with each person directly and be clear on your expectations going forward. Ask your staff what they wish to achieve through their behaviour – is their goal to undermine people’s trust in them? Inquire how they would feel if others were treating them the same way. Gossip tends to break down trust in both individuals and teams, as it undermines direct communication, personal accountability and problem solving.

Instead, be a role model of direct communication. Take the time to have those difficult conversations. Encourage your direct reports to speak with the person they are impacted by and have them make a request for a change in behaviour. And you might just help an individual change their behaviour and be even more effective in their role.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>