How to deal with gossip at work

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Bev FlaxingtonWe all enjoy a good conversation about our colleagues, don’t we? There is always something to talk about when working with large teams on challenging projects. Beverly Flaxington, a workplace behavioural expert from The Collaborative, spoke to me about gossip and how we can use it to improve productivity and solve problems.
Beverly, how do we define gossip?
My definition of “gossip,” is any conversation between employees about another person or an issue within the firm that is harmful or that can’t or wouldn’t be said directly. If a friend is not okay with me telling someone, I wouldn’t consider emailing a colleague to tell them about a mutual friend moving to another area as “gossip”. They are fine with me sharing this information.
Gossip is when I wouldn’t say it to someone or wouldn’t want them to know that I repeated it. For example, “Don’t tell anyone but Susie got passed over for promotion?” Or “I hear we are cutting down on our support staff.” My definition would include the following: “Management are idiots and don’t know what they’re doing.” Gossip is when someone claims something about another person that is accepted as fact without checking it. This is something that we don’t like to do.
Intent has a lot of to do with it.
If you do it with positive intent, or the hope of improving something, that is a good rule of thumb. If you know that it is negative or that someone would be upset or the boss needs it to change, find another way to express your thoughts. It is harmful when the discussion is negative or all-encompassing. This is what I call “pinning Jell O to a wall”. It will remain as Jell O, never to be fixed or addressed by anyone else, until it is at its back door.
Although we would call it jelly here, we use the same expression. How can project managers collaborate with their teams to stop negative gossip and time-wasting?
A clear plan of action is essential. Who, what, when, etc. Keep updating people often. Discuss what’s holding you back. Open discussions about how the team interacts and works together. It is just as important to plan how we will work together as teams and then check in on it. I also teach teams that it is just as important to plan “how we will work together” and to plan that out. Assigning tasks to people’s strengths, holding open forums, and assigning roles in the team such as facilitator, recorder, and so on. Setting ground rules for how we will collaborate together can help to stop negative gossip from getting started.
However, gossip is often negative. How can we change this and make gossip more productive?
We know that employees who gossip about other people and their problems can be detrimental to the business. It can be a time-sucker and it can lower people’s enthusiasm and morale. Smart managers can use gossip to their advantage, but many aren’t doing so. Managers often have an attitude that they don’t want to hear complaints, so they keep them underground. They don’t disappear, we know that they just get expressed in a less productive venue.
Beverly’s book, Make Your ShiftOK. If project team members feel the need for gossip, we must tap into them and solve the problems effectively, rather than letting them fester. What is the best way to solve the problems people gossip about?
There are four steps to follow:
Define your goals.
Identify the obstacles (i.e. What are they gossiping about?
Recognize the contribution of gossiping (positive or negative) and take steps to stop it.

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