Kick the Gossip Habit

I wanted to share a little about gossip in the workplace. It’s really a killer, you know.

What is gossip? Gossip is talking about someone else’s private business. It’s passing on their secrets to people who don’t need to be involved.

Gossip is at the heart of a lot of workplace entertainment, and it’s also at the heart of a lot of workplace unhappiness.

A juicy water-cooler conversation can spread like wildfire, and it rarely makes for a stronger team. One moment, the sales manager is sharing her marriage woes with her trusted office confidant, and before you know it, in a variation of the childhood game “Whisper Down the Lane,” the whole team knows all the painful details. And just like in the game, the stories being spread get twisted and move past the rumor stage into the realm of actual lies, and lies can damage careers and companies in an instant.

The spread of gossip feels irresistible while it’s happening, and a lot of people seek it out because it makes them feel in the know, and gives them the kind of thrill they get from watching a television drama play out.

But the cost to everyone is high, because gossip can really hurt people.

The person being gossiped about feels a loss of privacy and belonging, and the energetic shift from being part of a group to being the outsider who’s being talked about is unmistakable. It sucks to have people talking about you behind your back.

The rest of the team is tainted with the emotional residue of badmouthing their coworker, as the line between the insiders and the outsiders is drawn. Even if on one level, we enjoy gossip, on another level, it leaves us feeling dirty somehow.

The company suffers because time and energy are being wasted on negativity, and that can have an effect on the bottom line. People who are gossiping are not engaged in creating solutions.

And on a personal level, the person passing on the gossip is reinforcing an image of being untrustworthy and negative. In other words, gossip reflects more on you than it reflects on the person you’re talking about.

And don’t ever forget that if someone is gossiping to you, they’re probably also out there gossiping about you.

In a climate of secrets and rumors, it’s a short distance to maliciousness, and the resulting divisiveness can actually take a company down.

Enlightened companies are able to create and sustain a gossip-free environment, and know that a no-gossip policy is good for everyone. But most company cultures aren’t even aware, let alone enlightened.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be, though. Even in a company that feeds itself on rumor and innuendo, you can take the high road and choose not to participate.

You can just say no to gossip.

The next time you get the urge to dish the dirt, or find yourself at the receiving end of a tidbit that you know really isn’t your business, stop and ask yourself if it’s gossip.

If the story needs to be told in hushed tones, or you’d stop talking if the person you’re talking about came into the room, then it’s gossip. If there is any intention to make someone else think less of the person you’re talking about, then it’s gossip. If there’s any kind of complaint, negative judgment or desire for power or revenge that fuels your desire to share it, it’s gossip.

It isn’t easy to break the gossip habit. It means being honest with yourself, and being able to make and keep a commitment. And it also means interacting with people in a new way.

At one company I worked for, we had an employee who loved gossip. He was a gossip machine, drawn to it like a moth to a flame, and he created a buzz of stories about other people around him. Almost every day, he’d come in and sit down at my desk and share the latest story of who did what in a hushed but excited tone of voice.

When I took on the commitment of giving up gossip entirely, I told him, “You know, I’ve realized that this kind of conversation is actually harmful to our team, because the person you’re talking about isn’t here. From now on, I really want to make sure we all are out in the open with each other, so I’m going to suggest that we invite the person in question come join us, and you can repeat what you said, and they can let us know if the story is true or not. Is that OK with you?”

Actually, no, it wasn’t. He wasn’t interested in getting to the bottom of things, he was interested in the thrill of gossiping. So he stopped coming in and sharing his stories with me. He wasn’t after the truth, and he wasn’t after a stronger, more trusting relationship with our coworkers. He just liked to gossip.

Think about whether you have a gossip habit.

Ask yourself what you’ve been getting out of gossiping, and what it’s been costing you. Ask yourself if gossiping is really in alignment with the kind of person you want to be, and if what you’re saying is something you’d be willing to have published in the newspaper, or to say in front of the person you’re talking about.

If you are ready to give it up, start by letting people know that gossip is a game you no longer want to play. You don’t have to be accusatory or judgmental when you tell them you’re not going to play any more. Just let them know that you’ve decided to give up gossip as a way to be kinder to yourself, that you think you’ll feel better about yourself and about the people around you when you kick the gossip habit.

Don’t expect it to be an instant change. Just make yourself a promise, and whenever you catch yourself perking up your ears to talk about a rumor, or beginning to share someone’s personal story with a third party who doesn’t need to know, stop and give yourself a pat on the back for being willing to break the habit, and renew your commitment to yourself for a gossip-free life.

Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

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