On gossip in orgs
Destructive force or a means for understanding?
Observations and Annotations is a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories.
“Words have no wings but they can fly a thousand miles.“ - Korean Proverb
If you've ever been the subject of a false story you might recoil if I told you not all chatter like this is negative. I understand your position. There was a time I dreaded gossip too. It felt harmful. I suspect like many of us while growing up untrue rumors spread about me. The hurtful words especially stung because I didn’t know how to correct the falsehoods. I became more cautious and insecure. I hated gossip.
Over time, I learned to ignore gossip about myself. Over time I came to understand there’s an undercurrent of gossip in most communities. I had a more measured view of whispers in an organizational setting.
As a leader, negative emotions around gossip stirred once again. Despite opening my schedule to everyone in the company, I knew people talked about me. I knew some would see me as incompetent, that’s a well-trafficked stereotype about leaders. Sometimes it’s true, other times there's missing context. I was mostly at peace with this behavior, knowing I couldn’t correct every misperception. The hardest were untrue rumors I couldn’t refute because of confidentiality reasons. Still, I tried not to dismiss whispers outright because I knew they contained information.
I think of gossip in a broad sense that includes grumbling, moaning, griping and talking about others. Many of us tend to think of behavior like gossip as harmful. Research shows that some of these behaviors can be neutral or have some benefits. These days I see gossip on a continuum. There are some good reasons to engage in this behavior and some situations leaders should watch out for.
Why we gossip
As a tool for sensemaking
Organizations are dynamic systems. Navigating them can be challenging especially when new to the system. When new to a company, gossip can be a way to understand the people landscape. Navigation might become challenging again when dramatic change is afoot. Information tends to spread unevenly through orgs. In the face of ambiguity, it’s human nature to fill in the details. Sensing we're missing something, we turn to gossip to fill in the gaps. We’re pattern-matching machines. We try to make sense of what’s happening. This kind of sensemaking can indicate the information is too sparse.
To connect with others
As social beings, sometimes we gripe as a way to bond with others. It can foster our work identity and forge new relationships. This form of surface bonding is a way to connect those you don’t work with much or don’t have things in common. If this form of initial bonding moves on to other topics I’d say it served its purpose.
As a way to relieve uncomfortable emotions
Sometimes work brings up uncomfortable feelings. Sharing our gripes with others can help process emotions. Knowing others feel the same way can make us feel less lonely. This can help us stop questioning ourselves, bolster self-esteem and relieve stress. The conversation also helps strengthen work bonds so we enjoy working more. This kind of coping mechanism can be helpful, especially when done in small doses or in times of deep stress.
To gain a sense of control
Complaining to others is a way to gain a sense of control, especially during uncertain times. When speculating we fill in missing information helping us feel more certain. In turn, we feel more in control, calming our nervous system.
When to worry
A recent uptick
A dramatic rise in gossip indicates something is askew. There might be power dynamics at play. For instance, someone might have begun hoarding information leading the team to gripe. The whispers might also come from market changes making the team nervous about the financial health of the company. Whatever the cause, pay attention when the whispers grow.
Us vs them mindset has set in
Complaining can help us grow closer, helping form our work identity but can also shut others out. Sometimes our attempts to connect with others turn corrosive. We complain about another team or the leadership of the organization. If we’re not careful, it turns to us vs them. This creates roadblocks to collaboration. Pay attention when griping and complaining turn into factions within the company.
A whisper campaign has developed
When we hear murmurings we're inclined to believe them. Sometimes there is a good reason for these whispers. Other times the behavior is an attempt to manipulate or gain control. Those whispers might show toxic behavior on the part of the person spreading them. A friend discovered there were untrue rumors that she got the job because she was sleeping with the boss. It turns out someone wanted her job. It’s a good example of the harm that can come from the whispers of a jealous colleague. This kind of gossip can be hard to decipher at first look. Look at whisper campaigns as an opportunity for further exploration.
What this all means
When it comes to gossip, it's complicated. Yes, it can be destructive. That's clear. It can also be an indicator the team is still engaged, they care about what's going on at work. Apathy can be worse as it means they no longer care enough to talk about work. Expect disengagement and a round of departures to follow.
Netflix recently fired three execs for complaining about co-workers on a private slack channel. The company said their behavior violated Netflix's value of radical transparency. I'm conflicted on how they handled it. On one hand, company values are critical, especially for leaders who need to set an example. Firing them makes sense. Still, I hope the company held a deeper examination of why these execs turned to this behavior.
Reducing a gossip problem to a few individuals could mean ignoring a larger problem. You might have a person whose behavior has turned toxic. There’s an equal chance they’re the canary in the coalmine. Systemic issues might be brewing. Be careful not to write it off as an isolated problem, examine why it’s happening. You might be missing indicators. People might not feel empowered to speak up or when they do, don’t feel their concerns are taken seriously. Unaddressed issues lead cultures to erode and companies lose influence as a good place to work. In this market, employees have their choice of jobs. A reputation for being a bad place to work isn’t what you want in this market.
Side chatter is present in most communities. It can be a tool for sensemaking and a means of bonding. Trying to stomp out all chatter is a Sisyphean task. Instead, it’s important to understand the nature of the chatter. Is it malicious, a way to make sense of unexplained observations, or a vehicle for connection? Understanding the intent helps determine what to do about it if anything.
Organizational chatter is best used as a barometer for organizational health rather than as a toxic element with zero tolerance.
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