Have you ever tried to shift workplace gossip and failed?
Have you ever temporarily enjoyed the feeling of venting about a mutual foe or enemy at work and felt low afterwards?
Have you ever felt that sinking feeling in your belly when you see your colleagues talking behind closed doors?
Do you find the main content of your conversations with others revolves around peoples' issues or mistakes?
If you said yes to all of these, congrats, you are honest and can acknowledge the universal shadow of being a real human being that needs love, approval and safety and is vulnerable to judgement and the pain of exclusion. Likely, you also understand the short-sidedness of gossip and yearn for something better.
Let's look at the underlying human conditions that create the desire and practice of gossip:
We find a tribe - often easiest by having a common enemy or frustration. We share gossip to build a sense of closeness between an in-group to increase intimacy.
We are able to manipulate (in a safe, passive-aggressive way) to advance our own agenda by invalidating others behind closed doors.
We circulate important information around an organization, especially bad experiences, when the there is intimidation and distrust in the organization, likely from bad leaders or volatile personalities.
We haven't yet learned how to validate ourselves, receive feedback, be with difficult emotions and discharge them properly, handle our own mistakes, set and enforce boundaries directly, and own our voice and personal power.
We have been raised in cultures and family systems where direct assertive communication is considered unkind, disrespectful, and unnecessary boat rocking.
There are many hard-wired biological and systemic reasons for gossiping, most of them stemming around the need for safety, personal advancement, and tribe. Gossip happens across culture, socio-economic status, gender, and race. It truly is our common humanity attempting to meet our fundamental basic needs. The tough thing is as that when shared habitually, without awareness and parameters, it lowers our frequency, creates significant harm to others and ourselves (professionally and personally), builds distrust, and creates a toxic environment. Yet, with a slight twist and redirection on gossip, what we call "Conscious Complaining" a team member can have catharsis without creating harm. Conscious Complaining lasts no more than 2 minutes and is focused on sharing personal feelings and needs, with a solution in mind. Listeners just listen (it's only 2 minutes, after all) without joining in. Then, it's done. Training can help peers develop skills to turn hurtful gossiping or toxic grumping into coaching moments that empower the person to take accountability and move toward solution.
At Moksha, when we work with teams, we interview each member of the team for 1.5 hours. We ask about the typical team dynamics, in-groups/out groups, relationships to be repaired, structural elements, and more... Importantly, we listen and ask about the quality and content of gossip (what is talked about after hours and in the shadows). This is where we learn the real issues that need to be addressed and the big unresolved wounds that are being held and circulated for sometimes years. The more negative the gossip, the more pain and dysfunction in the team - period.
We have found that other elements that seem to intensify negative gossip patterns are 1) the promotion of a peer to a leadership position, 2) when managers and leaders are not present for their people, and 3) when leaders and peers are not skilled at receiving and giving necessary feedback. Gossip will flourish when there is tolerance for bullying or explosive behaviors not resolved, or professional backlash for those who confront them.
I once interviewed a high level leader, at a Technology Company, who was brutally honest and genuinely self aware about the impact of her own gossip. She was vulnerable about the impact gossip has had on her life, her team, and professional career. She shared that a lower level direct report had repeatedly shared some terrible gossip about one of her peer level leaders. She was told that her colleague was dishonest, condescending, mentally unstable, and overall not liked by his entire team. Since they were friends, she believed the gossip. Not only did she believe what was said, it activated a core archetype within her of a "protector" who needed to take a stand (yet not to him directly). Disturbed by the accusations, she repeated the stories third-hand and strategically gathered support to undercut his authority to manage a multi-million dollar project. At one point, the leader was able to reflect and see that all of the examples she repeated had actually never been observed first-hand by her. She realized she was being manipulated to displace a peer for her friend's personal gain. This was an "aha" (Oh Shit) moment to say the least. The leader immediately realized the impact of gossip and how it had derailed not only her colleagues professional career, but also damaged her reputation for going after him so strongly. She was filled with anxiety and shame, and removed herself from the gossip triangle.
She is slowly repairing her own reputation as well as her colleague's reputation and is committed to redirecting gossip, having direct conversations and rebuilding trust. Although this may be an extreme example of gossip, which led to big consequences - there are often equally insidious ways we invalidate one another to get ahead, perhaps buried under false smiles, fake alliances, flattery, and promises to not tell.
If you are like many, you have already tried to curtail gossip, by not participating, walking away, creating a no gossip rule for employees, and for some bold types, you confronted it head on. As a consequence of your noble efforts, often it may mean that you are left out of afterwork drinks and dinner parties, which triggers our core need to be included. As a result, we may find ourselves going back into the soap-opera.
So here are a few redirection tips to get you started to begin to heal this dynamic.
1) When working on your own habits, share your personal intention with your close friends and colleagues about your commitment to curtail your habit of gossip. Admit it, explain the Impact it is creating for you, and your desire to change the patterns.
" Susan, I really love our walks at lunch on Wednesdays. I notice I have gotten into a habit of complaining about Bob, and that is all we ever talk about. Although it feels good in the moment, I notice I feel more distant toward him, more afraid to share my feelings with him, and I feel kind of guilty afterwards. I want to change that pattern. Can you help me? I'm hoping we can share more personally about what is going well and brainstorm on how I can build my confidence to tell him how I feel. Also, I'm curious about what it might feel like to change the habits of our conversations so I feel more positive. Maybe we can try to talk about what is going well for a change? This will be new for me, but are you willing to give it a try?"
2) When someone starts to complain or gossip about another, and you feel uncomfortable, show support and care for them as a human being, validate their feelings and encourage them to have the conversation with the person it is about so things can shift.
" Erin, you know I care for you, and I know that you are struggling with Jessica right now. I want you to know that I value you and her both. I can see your perspective, yet I know it has to be resolved between you two. I want to be in right relationship with both of you. I don't want to talk about her personally when she is not present. I also want to trust that if we run into problems in the future that you feel resourced enough to come to me rather than someone else, even though that is normal. How can I help you engage her so you can find peace in this situation? I am happy to hear out what you want to say to her and give you feedback if it sounds too strong or attacking. Remember communication goes two ways, so you will have be in a place to listen to her perspective as well. I am here to support you both."
3. When someone is seeking validation about an injustice that they experienced and you were a witness to. Especially if it occurred from a senior leader. We want to validate their feelings and help them move from being a victim to a creator by taking an life-affirming action that will resolve the conflict and allow them to speak up.
"Tom, I realize how angry you are for how you were treated in that meeting. I can see why you are angry. I also agree and don't think Tim handled himself well. I think you should cool down and either have a meeting with him directly or write an email sharing the Impact that his behavior had on you and the team. I plan to share my feedback in our next one-on-one, since I was in the room as well. Let me know how it goes. I'm happy to listen as you role play it out or read the letter that you write. If that doesn't work, then let's strategize on who we can get involved."
At the Team level:
It really helps to have a transformational off-site, which is our speciality. We offer a deep dive into neuroscience, high performance teaming, and trust building experiences that builds empathy, personal connection, common humanity, and promotes forgiveness. We teach key components of creating conscious communication and awaken a felt knowing that things can be different.
One of the questions we ask a team struggling with hurtful gossip is, "What would it feel like to know that everyone in this room committed to have your back, that people won't criticize you behind your back and promise to give you feedback to help you be at your best?" Their answer, "It would change everything."
At the Moksha group, we provide powerful off-sites that many leaders say is the most powerful leadership session they have experienced in their entire careers. We allow people to ease into asking for and giving direct feedback to one another - once high levels of trust have been established. We provide rituals and methods for repairing mistakes, redirecting toxic gossip patterns, and holding each other accountable without shame. Often times, we finalize the offsite with a team-created set of agreements to move forward. More formally, we will sometimes create official "team charters" that clearly defines team purpose, intent of meetings, and most importantly the personal commitment they make to one another. This includes how the team will resolve conflict, redirect gossip, share feedback and repair. Together we create a plan for integrating their learnings into agendas, one-on-one meetings, and future off-sites experiences.
With Love, Sheila
"I am so grateful for the training experience we had with you and Ryan. I got the opportunity to put into practice what we learned this morning with conscious communication. I was really afraid, but with your support and guidance, I was able to deal with the conflict directly, without going around the person. I felt so empowered after, and the problem resolved immediately. You two have changed our lives. Thank you so much!"
-- Participant in Moksha Experience
* Sheila Pride, LCSW, RYT, LMT is the Co-Founder and Owner Operator of Moksha. Moksha is a Culture Shaping and Strategy firm, helping organizations create dynamic, powerful cultures and to solve complex problems.