Gossip in the Workplace: Social Bonding or Verbal ViolenceGossip is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others. In a broader sense, it may be interpreted by the individual in any number of ways: malicious or actionable talk about someone beyond the person’s hearing; both true and untrue remarks about a person’s or institution’s business whether personal or professional, innocuous or slanderous.

However, according to psychologist Robin Dunbar, the word did not originally have that meaning. It meant simply the activity that one engaged in with one’s “godsibs,” one’s peer group equivalent of godparents: in other words, those with whom one was especially close. In fact, Dunbar claims “gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.

Perhaps this is true for social bonding over topics such as personal relationships, anecdotes about social activities, as well as news, sports, politics, or music. But what happens when social bonding turns to malicious rumors, or unfounded truths, and becomes harmful to the social fabric that keeps our workplaces happy and healthy?

Anyone that has ever found out they were the target of gossip can attest that it is not a good feeling, especially if it’s malicious in nature. If rumors are personal, the target feels attacked, victimized. Similar to bullying, this form of verbal violence can affect morale and cause distrust among employees that must work together. Once trust is lost, productivity decreases as sides are chosen. Employees may feel they have no other choice but to leave their job because their work environment has become toxic.

The Three-Filters Test Against Gossip

You can help your employees determine whether the talk around the water cooler is positive or negative. There’s an anecdote about Socrates stopping gossip before it started.

Socrates once encountered an acquaintance as he passed through the markets.

“I’ve something important to tell you,” he said. “It’s about your friend.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Socrates said. “But, don’t tell me just yet. I run all information through the Three-Filters Test to ascertain if I want to know it.”

The man looked somewhat puzzled as Socrates continued, “First is the filter of truth. Whatever you want to tell me, have you seen or witnessed it first-hand?”

“Umm…I actually heard it from someone,” the man said, “and it is from a trusted source.”

“Alright. But that does not pass my first test,” Socrates added, “since you don’t know if it’s true.”

Second is the filter of goodness. Is that a good statement you want to make about my friend?”

“Not really. That’s the reason I wanted—”

Socrates interjected, “So, you want to tell me something bad about someone but don’t know if it’s true. The last is the filter of utility.” He continued, “Your statement about my friend, is that going to be useful to me?”

“Not really as such. I just wanted to share.”

“Well, if the information is not necessarily true, it is not good, and, it is of no use,” Socrates concluded, “please, I don’t want to know about it.”

Three More Filters

The three-filters test is a good way to censor what you hear or say about someone. However, it takes quite a bit of self-awareness for someone to know if they are maliciously gossiping or not. They may think they aren’t doing any harm until there is a confrontation or the person leaves the company. However, in addition to asking whether the information is true, good, and useful there are three questions anyone—everyone—should ask themselves before saying anything about anyone:

  • What is your motivation? If you need to share something personal about someone, make sure it is for the right reason. For example, one of your coworkers is in the hospital with a serious illness. You want to coordinate meals to be cooked and delivered to her family while she is laid up, so you notify a group of people that would be inclined to participate.
  • Would you say it to their face? Chances are that if you won’t say it to their face, you shouldn’t say it at all.
  • What do you expect the outcome to be? Many people who spread malicious gossip probably don’t even think about the consequences of their words. However, if you think about it and you are calculating a manipulative result, don’t say it. Just don’t.

What Else to Do?

It can be difficult for managers to know what is going between coworkers unless there is an open line of communication. Encourage employees to bring such issues to their management. This a step toward ensuring situations where gossip has taken a negative turn will be brought out in the open.

Building strong, supportive teams can also help deter negative talk and promote positive talk, which is a great thing to have in an organization.

If you find that negative gossip is becoming entrenched in your staff dynamics, take proactive steps to help them find ways to stop it. Here are some ideas:

  • You can implement a policy discouraging gossip. Though it’s effectiveness may be limited, such a policy brings to the attention of staff the awareness of the problem to everyone equally.
  • You can have training sessions that address the above techniques, as well as other methods of dealing with malicious gossip. These sessions may be professionally facilitated.

On an individual level, if you find you are the target of gossip, unwittingly a part of it, or simply overhear it, here are some possibilities to stop it:

  • Confront the gossipers. This can be intimidating but it is a fairly direct method of putting rumors to rest that may also teach the offender to not talk about others.
  • Ignore them. When the conversation turns to negative gossip, walk away. Taking the power away from people who spread rumors spoils their fun.
  • Respond to negative gossip with a positive story. In the case of gossip, the math doesn’t add up: two negatives don’t make a positive. But a positive can cancel the negative and leave a good thought behind rather than a bad one. Remember, if you won’t say something to someone’s face, you shouldn’t say it at all.
  • The best advice, however, is to keep your private life private. Don’t open yourself up to gossip by revealing personal information.
  • Finally, if you hear someone talking about someone behind their backs, you can figure that person or group of people will talk about you, too. It might be best to avoid them.

Richard Valdez

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