You are on page 1of 3

The Antidote to Office gossip

HBR
Alicia Bassuk || 11 November 2016

Sara, the CEO of a software company, had recently fired an employee. In a heartbeat, gossip
about the who, how and why of the termination began spreading through the office grapevine
like chicken pox in a kindergarten classroom.

The copy-room commentary was flat-out false. But the buzz quickly infected her team with
a rumor that more people were on the chopping block, even though this was far from the truth.

How did the gossip get to that point? Why do workplace rumors happen in the first place? And
what can be done to prevent them?

Up to 90% of conversations qualify as gossip. That means it is almost certain that you are pretty
regularly a rumor initiator or enabler, listening without deterrence. And its not just cafeteria and
hallway whispers that contribute to the problem: Nearly 15% of all work email can be categorized
as gossip.

To be sure, not all gossip is bad for an organization. But the kind that poisons rapport, maligns
reputations, and contaminates cooperation is what you need to take action against. To do this,
its important to go back to the basics and understand what gossip really is: casual and
unconstrained conversation, about absent third parties, regarding information or events that
cannot be confirmed as being true.

Gossip is born out of uncertainty. When we are uncertain, we are inclined to make assumptions.
Why? Uncertainty creates a knowledge void that must be filled with actual, or in many cases
artificial, information. The antidote, of course, is open and honest communication with your
employees. Here are a few strategies to try.

Give Them the Low-Down

A big change in a company firing a top executive, shutting down an office can be a tripwire
for explosive speculations if the change isnt communicated clearly to employees. Because
uncertainty creates a knowledge void, be sure to quickly fill the void with facts before suspicion
becomes fact. The more quickly you spill the beans, no matter how painful doing so might be,
the less likely people are to start panicking.

For example, before seeking to acquire another firm, Joe, the CEO of a midsize consumer
packaged goods company, gathered his team and revealed the companys financials in great
detail. Next, he outlined the process for acquisition with a well-defined timeline. In the following
weeks, rather than counterproductive chatter clamoring through the ranks, Joe saw her team
become more cohesive, rallying together to pull the company through a challenging and
transformative time.

Get the Scoop from Employees

Katrina, the COO of an international software company, made a decision to terminate her entire
sales team over the course of a year. It was a move she knew would send the company into a
frenzy. To mitigate this, she regularly asked questions before, during, and after the process. She
wanted to know:

How did people feel about the decision?


Was there anything she should be doing differently as the COO to make the transition
smoother?
How was the leadership team handling the aftermath?
Was there anything people wanted to know about the situation that they didnt already
know?

By asking questions early and regularly, Katrina signaled to her employees that she valued their
feedback and that they were encouraged to become invested in the process. As a result, she
squashed the development of widespread negativism within the company, even during a difficult
time.
Always Wear White

Gossip can ruin team cohesion as flagrantly as slinging mud on a white suit. When trust is sullied,
rancor, animosity, and misgivings can turn a culture of cooperation into a mosh pit of dysfunction.
To wear white means to be mindful of mudslinging and the more you know someone, the
less likely you are to malign them. So encourage employees to get to know each other as
people, not just coworkers.

You can promote workplace fellowship by:

sponsoring company events and outings


conducting creative icebreakers at the beginning of team meetings
hosting a one-on-one lunch with a different employee each week

Be a Role Model

Employees look to their managers as role models and messengers of organizational values. Its
one thing to insist on conduct based on mutual regard and high character; its quite another to
demonstrate it. Ethics and empathy should be the tandem directive for conduct. If you model
integrity in what you say and do, your employees will likely follow suit. Consistently
communicate your expectations in written policies, verbal exchanges, and meaningful actions.

In addition, you can block gossip by sticking to the facts what verifiably was said, done, or
occurred and by being direct. If someone is giving you an earful, let them know you will not
participate. If they persist, excuse yourself from the conversation.

Gossip has been undermining relationships since the beginning of time. You can diminish its
impact by eliminating knowledge voids, fostering feedback, encouraging relationships beyond
coworker consideration, and modeling the conduct of mutual regard.

After all, grapevines are better suited for making wine.