Workplace Gossip: Good or Bad?

Friday, November 29, 2013 - 20:45

By Leon Gettler

Gossip has always been there. It’s as old as communication itself. And people gathering around a water cooler to shoot the breeze is a great way to create great teams. It forges connections, builds trust, provides a means of learning unwritten social norms and offers a way of comparing ourselves with others. Then again, office gossip and talking can create problems. When it’s bad and malicious, it can alienate people, cause morale problems and affect productivity.

Bonnie Rochman at Forbes says office gossip can build real camaraderie and creates trust. “From a manager’s perspective, water cooler chatter can also serve a useful social function by keeping employees in line. For example, if you know your boss will start a whisper campaign every time you show up late, you’re more likely to put your nose to the grindstone.”

But as the W2W network says, it can also be damaging. “Gossip has many adverse side effects on an organisation. It can increase conflict and decrease morale. It results in strained relationships. Gossip breaks down the trust level within the group, which results in employees second-guessing each other and ultimately running to the supervisor to clarify the directions or instructions, or to settle the differences that will arise. Gossip is the death of teamwork as the group breaks up into cliques and employees start refusing to work with others.”

Calvin Sun at Tech Republic says managers have to do several things to handle this. First, they have to set an example. If they are speculating idly or chatting with people about what’s going down, they shouldn’t be surprised if their subordinates are doing it. He says managers also have to be willing to talk to people and give them clear answers. Otherwise, they’ll gossip. He says managers also have to keep the communication lines open so that when a problem arises, staff are told about it. That’s better than them hearing about it on the grapevine. Managers are also advised not to shoot the messenger. If they take action against a staff member who raises a difficult issue, staff members will simply complain among themselves, causing a vicious circle of discontent and gossip. He says they should also confront the gossiper, deal with the issue and not the person and refuse to be drawn in. If you feel you can’t avoid the gossip and you can’t change the subject, at least try to verify the information you’re hearing. Ask about details about places and times. If people are complaining about something, see if you could get them to find a solution. And finally, don’t announce or make a big deal about what you’re doing. Above all, avoid being condescending or lecturing people about the evils of gossip.

Management experts say managers should communicate regularly with a consistent positive message, focusing on such topics as industry trends, organisational changes, new products, promotions, terminations and retirements. They should also make sure they are visible, accessible and approachable, acknowledge good performance and make sure everyone is working together rather than competing with one another.