What to Do When Workplace Gossip Has Taken Over

If gossip has infiltrated your workplace, and feelings are hurt because someone shared a secret that was meant for only them to hear…

There’s a culture of complaining, resulting in triangulation in the workplace. Think about it. How often do those with complaints, do so with someone who has the power to make change? People talk and it’s inevitable.

It’s a matter of how much people talk, where there’s space for people to develop relationships and communicate daily. There’s the opportunity for gossip, just like in the school days of your youth. Gossip has power and part of which, being the sharing of information or stories about peers. It can be entertaining or can be interesting. Yet sometimes that information isn’t meant to be shared. Then when someone’s trust gets broken, relationships start to sour. They are then ripe for conflict strained relationships, making it such that getting the work done is hard, if not impossible. These relationships shouldn’t impact the work, but they do.

What can we do about it? How do we make it so that relationships, and work can be symbiotically productive?

The Effects of Gossip in the Workplace

Gossip can be exciting. Being in the know gives you and others a sense of power and allows you to feel important. Sometimes the problem is that feeling important while having that information and power comes at the cost of somebody else. That cost can be embarrassment, being treated differently than you used to be, and having people’s opinions change so much that they start behaving based on those new opinions. Whether it’s towards you or towards somebody else, that change matters because it can affect how you or someone else feels. That’s the power of rumors.

What is it about that type of power that is so irresistible? What is it about being in other people’s business that’s so enticing? What do you get from having all the information on somebody and what they’re going through? What is it about a specific situation that attracts you to want to know all the details? It’s as if you have some grand plan of what to do with the details you learn. What value does it really provide? What power does it give you, or what element of control does you get with the information? How does it help your relationships? How does it help the team?

What is Triangulation? 

What goes unnoticed with gossip are the complaints they generate. The subject of the gossip or rumors may be complaining to management or HR. If you’re participating in the spread of the gossip, how do you think the person of focus can continue to contribute to the team at a high level? When their performance starts to decline, you now have something to complain about. How often would you take the initiative to address your performance concerns directly with them, verses complaining to management?

Attempts to resolve a problem using a third party rather than directly is called triangulation. This method typically makes the situation worse because messages get lost in translation, and the answers to key questions aren’t asked directly, leaving much room for assumption and interpretation. Conflict is inevitable under this model, as key information which would contribute to a resolution, isn’t heard and understood. There is no substitute for directly talking the situation out in order to resolve it.

The New Boss

When someone brings about change it’s not always welcomed. Keeping the status quo makes you feel comfortable and trying to hold on to that comfort is what might drive you to stand up or fight back against change. When change is disruptive, you and others will predictably do anything to stop it, including work against the individuals instituting change. You might try mobbing, some form of workplace bullying or even complaining to the boss of the person making the changes. What if the new boss is the person making the changes?

You have a new boss, the leader of your team, who’s taken time to learn the organization and is ready to start making changes. The proposed changes are meant to streamline and standardize business processes. The result for you is a change in how you do your work. Your team wasn’t included in the conversations leading up to the changes, yet you’re expected to be a team player and adjust accordingly. This doesn’t sit well with you because your approach to the job gets things done, while keeping the team that reports to you happy. “Who does this new boss think they are coming in and making all these changes?” is a question you ask your peers frequently. Their new ideas will take extra effort to implement, and there’s no time for that. It would also appear as if they’ve been given permission to clean up and cut back where they see fit. Others have been reassigned to different areas, and a few terminated or rage quit. You’re feeling a squeeze, as if they’re coming after everyone who doesn’t get in line with their plans. At times they just rub you the wrong way.

The way they talk to you and others doesn’t often land well. They’re new to the area and your industry, so how could they possibly be making these widespread changes. You’re accustomed to friendly conversation and requests, and they can be abrupt and abrasive at times. When you have questions, you’re often shut down in a dictatorial manner and scolded into following directions. The last person in that role retired, and they understood you and everyone else which made working for them a pleasure. You were willing to do whatever they asked, because you felt they understood and respected you. this new person doesn’t seem to respect or value you and your experience. You and others are fed up and are trying to figure out what to do. The first idea is to try to get them fired. It sounds like it could work, you just need a solid plan.

The changes are affecting morale, the work appears to be getting harder as the days pass. This overall change is enough to get them fired in your eyes, after all they’re making things worse and not better. You and some of your peers devise a plan to help them to look bad in their boss’s eyes, with hopes that they get fired. Everything they do that you don’t like; you report to their boss. The idea is if there’s enough complaints, they can’t be allowed to stick around for too long.

If others complain as well, it should be a sure thing they get sent packing. You all have been there a long time and have credible reputations. You understand how the business works and believe this new way of doing things just isn’t sustainable. The relationship with them is deteriorating but they’re still around. Your frustrations have you wanting to quit and you’re too young to retire. Their boss encourages you to talk to them and work it out. That’s just not something you’re willing to do. How can you get through this if they won’t be fired or quit? What are your options to make this all go back to the way it used to be?

Think about this individual and what you know about them. How much of an effort did you put in really getting to know them as a person? What drives them as a leader? How do they spend their free time outside of work? Their boss is right, you must talk to them and work things out, but that requires a relationship in order to have the conversation in the first place. That foundational relationship is especially important when talking about a tough topic. It’s what will allow you to hear them out and for them to be willing to do the same. So, what do you think about getting to know them better, to try making work less miserable? If that’s not for you, what other possible options are available that have you owning the work to be done for the situation to improve?

How to Stop Gossip in the Workplace 

Whether it’s gossip, complaining or triangulation, power is the real game being played. What is it about power that’s so attractive? There’s an element of control involved, but what else? How does it contribute to achieving your long-term goals? Feeling strong and competent are great, but how sustainable is this method of achieving those feelings? What experience are you creating for others by playing this game? What happens when the high wears off, then what? As a leader, in what ways does this help you grow others? When you unlock the true reasons you engage in this way, you’ll have the ability to find alternative methods of meeting those needs while having your desired impact on others.