Sorry to all volleyball players and even coaches that love the TV show Gossip Girl. I know how disappointed you all will be to learn that I’m not a Gossip Girl junkie. I’m more of a Harvard Business Review junkie. Don’t let this news discourage you from continuing to read. This post is about How to Stop Enabling Gossip on your Team.
People engage in gossip when they lack trust or efficacy. We become consumers of gossip when we don’t trust formal channels — so we turn to trusted friends rather than doubtful leaders. We become purveyors of it when we feel we can’t raise sensitive issues more directly — so we natter with neighbors rather than confronting offenders.
The problem with gossip is that it reinforces the sickness that generates it. It’s pernicious because it’s based on a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I lack trust or efficacy I engage in gossip — which robs me of the opportunity to test my mistrust or inefficacy. The more I use it the more I reinforce my need for it.
They address the underlying problem in three ways:
1. Stop enabling. The best way to stop gossip is to stop enabling it. Gossipers are rewarded when others respond passively — by simply listening. To stop it, force it into the open. At the tech company, employees know that gossip comes with a risk — the risk that you will be called out. Recently some employees noticed a number of others had begun to use a third-party app, Secret, which allows people to share message anonymously, to complain about colleagues and policies. When they recognized their colleagues’ complaints, longer-tenured employees began calling out those who were whining rather than confronting responsibly. They even posted their names and contact information in the app to offer support for those who wanted to learn how to truly solve their problems.
2. Build trust in the alternatives. Leaders at the company also reduce the supply of gossip by decreasing demand. They proliferate options for raising problems. The all-hands meeting is just one example. The company also uses an internal social network platform to model candor and openness on a host of topics that would be terrifying at other places. For example, some employees grumbled when execs announced a recent multi-billion dollar acquisition. Monday-morning quarterbacking is common at all companies but at this company it was done with attributed comments in a discussion group – and Ken participated! One employee kicked it off with: “What’s up? We already have a business unit that does the same thing with even better margins?” The concern was addressed openly rather than metastasizing in gossip because there were credible channels for the discussion to take place.
3. Build skill. Gossip is a form of learned incompetence — an acquired skill that produces poor results. Overcoming it requires replacing that skill. The tech company starts re-scripting employees on day one. In a rigorous orientation employees are asked to describe things they hated about other places they worked. At the top of the list is always gossip and politics. Managers leading these discussions use this moment to offer alternative skills and strategies for surfacing emotionally and politically risky concerns—and to challenge employees to create the culture they want by using them.