Why We Gossip About People at Work

Why We Gossip About People at Work

Why We Gossip About People at Work 1350 900 Brook Thorndycraft

“Hey did you hear about Mike going over Rebecca’s head, about the quarterly report?”

We’ve all heard our share of workplace gossip. In fact, it’s so common, many of us never even give it much thought. 

I recently attended a workshop offered by someone who does workplace investigations, and she called gossip a form of harassment. This made me think about all of the complex reasons that people talk about other people behind their backs at work, and all of the different impacts it can have.

I help teams build agreements about what they want their culture to be, and how they want to deal with tensions, and gossip is often one of most contentious topics. People tend to have very strong opinions about it. Some people argue that gossip is categorically bad and does nothing but build distrust. Others will challenge that sometimes gossip is how people make meaning of confusing situations or share information and build solidarity in the face of unfair workplace dynamics or toxic culture. 

Fundamentally this controversy is based in a polarity: gossip as cause vs gossip as symptom (of toxicity and conflict). 

Whichever side you tend to be on, one thing we can know for sure is that when there is a lot of gossip, that means it’s time to get curious about the workplace culture and what might be happening under the surface.

As part of the thinking I’ve been doing about this topic, I’ve been chatting with people in LinkedIn about it. I posted a poll asking whether gossip was mostly necessary, mostly a bad thing, mostly harmless, or more complicated than any one of those options. Of the 33 people who responded, 18% said gossip was mostly bad, 3% said it was mostly harmless, and 79% said it was more complex than any one option. And the conversation in the comments was really interesting. (You can check out the conversation here). 

What exactly is gossip and how does it show up? 

One of the comments on the LinkedIn post was about the importance of understanding what’s meant by “gossip”, for a meaningful conversation about it to be possible. According to this research study on the impacts of negative gossip in knowledge sharing, “Workplace gossip is defined as informal conversation or evaluation (i.e., positive or negative) about a member beyond the person’s hearing, typically involving unproven details.” 

Notice that the above definition refers to positive and negative gossip. There is growing research suggesting that gossip can also have a positive impact on relationships, engagement,  and knowledge sharing and learning at work, and this is where some of the sense of complexity comes from. 

In addition, this study sites research that found that as much as 66% of social conversations between employees and about 14% of coffee-break conversations are about gossip. It is a major part of what people talk about with others at work, and how they tend to connect socially. It’s probably not going anywhere, and isn’t even all bad. The question is how to notice and deal with it when it is causing problems. Or even more importantly, when it is a sign that there is a bigger problem that leadership isn’t aware of. 

Some of the ways I have seen people use gossip in the workplace include:

  • Building solidarity in order to challenge a lack of fairness, equity or safety as a group rather than in isolation
  • Finding support and care from others in situations where people feel wronged or disempowered by conflict
  • Establishing or reinforcing in-groups or cliques
  • Targeting people they don’t like, are in conflict with, or who are seen as outsiders or potential threats 
  • Undermining someone they are competing with for promotion or other form of recognition
  • Blowing off steam when there doesn’t seem to be an effective way to raise concerns
  • Warning people of inappropriate or toxic behaviour when there is no way to hold people accountable formally (see the example of whisper networks)
  • Passing the time when bored or disengaged at work
  • Trying to understand what is going on in a crisis or major change
  • Falling into a habit that is either common to the workplace culture or something they brought with them from a different context
  • Building relationships, a sense of belonging, and sources of informal mentorship or knowledge sharing.

Many of these are examples of negative gossip, some of which would definitely be a form of harassment. Some of them are more positive and actually might help to build social networks at work. And many of them might be too complex to categorize clearly as one or the other, as they might have some positive and some negative impacts on the people involved and the workplace. 

As leaders, it’s important to be curious about what is going on, and what impacts the gossip is having.

Thinking about the impact

When you encounter gossip and feel uncertain whether it is playing a useful, harmless, or harmful role, one perspective that can be helpful is about impact. When you look at the list of examples earlier in this article, what stands out to you about the possible impact of each scenario? Would you say the net impact is positive, negative or neutral? 

Here are some questions to help you think about impact:

  • What might be any direct impacts (negative, positive or neutral) experienced by the people being gossipped about?
  • What kinds of spinoff impacts might there be to the people involved in the gossip?
  • What kinds of spinoff impacts might there be to the team or workplace more generally?
  • What kind of impact is gossip potentially having on the culture?
  • What would the impacts of not gossiping be in this situation? Is there any important purpose that the gossip is serving? 

The biggest impact of negative gossip is often on relationships, trust, and ultimately culture

Think about times you have gossiped or been gossiped to. Some of those times might have felt good and left you feeling closer or more connected to the person you were gossiping with. 

Other times, it might have left you feeling greater agitation, anxiety, or anger. You may have felt more disconnected from the person you were gossiping with. Maybe it felt like the gossip was crossing a boundary or drawing you into something uncomfortable or unethical.

Or possibly you found yourself suddenly furious at the person being gossiped about when previously you had a good relationship with them. All of a sudden you also felt like there was no way you could work with that person, and yes, even though you never noticed it before, it totally is true that they never listen to anything you say and try to take all the credit! 

When we are pulled into cycles of gossip, the information shared tends to shift and change as it goes from person to person. People might add their own interpretations, assumptions and exaggerations that reflect how they are feeling about the situation. The more the information spreads, the more the assumptions become solidified as part of the story. 

At a certain point, everyone starts noticing the impact. Think about the meeting in which one side of the table looks at each other and rolls their eyes and sniggers whenever one person says anything. When this kind of gossip becomes commonplace in a workplace, it can quickly lead to toxic behaviour and eventually to unsafe workplace culture. 

Which came first? The gossip or the conflict?

The above example demonstrates that gossip is often both a cause and an effect of conflict.

Conflict as a cause of gossip

When someone complains about another member of their team, something has happened to lead to them complaining. There is likely a conflict there, and the person is seeking support to deal with a frustrating or difficult situation. It may not have been the most proactive or effective way to deal with the situation, but they likely had conscious or unconscious reasons for feeling that it was the best or only way to get the support they needed. 

Gossip as a cause of conflict

Of course the problem with using gossip as a way to get support in conflict is that there is a huge risk that the gossip will escalate the conflict by spreading it to others. Now the conflict is entrenched with more people involved, and it will be harder to find a way through it. 

So what can you do?

In these moments, leaders often make the mistake of targeting the behaviour of the gossip as the area for change, without a deeper understanding of what is driving the behaviour. Is there conflict that needs to be addressed? Are there systemic issues that people are upset about? Getting people to stop the behaviour is very hard (sometimes impossible), if we are not addressing the root cause.

Start by getting curious

Wonder about what purpose the gossip is serving. Listen carefully and ask curious questions to find out what might be happening under the surface. If you have the trust of your team and the gossip is not about leadership, you may be able to have conversations with some of the key people and uncover what is going on. 

Here are some specific strategies to get under the surface:

  • Start by reviewing what you already know. What is the gossip about? What do you know about the people involved (personalities, how they work together, any past incidents) that might give you some insight into what is going on? Are there big organizational issues that people are upset about that haven’t been addressed?
  • Talk directly and one-on-one with the people involved in the gossip to let them know you are aware of it, talk about the impact you are seeing, and ask them what is driving it. Is there a specific problem or incident you should be aware of? Have they tried other ways to get that problem or incident addressed? Why or why not? Would they be open to trying something else with support? 

But you may find that there is not enough trust and safety with leadership for people to express what is going on directly, and that is part of why the gossip is happening. In these cases, you might need to give people confidential and anonymous ways to express what is happening, or bring in someone external who can guarantee people’s confidentiality. 

The intervention depends on the cause

Once you have a deeper understanding of what is driving the gossip and you feel confident it is having a mostly negative impact, then you can decide how best to intervene.

Is the negative gossip really just coming from bad habits and a culture that has facilitated it, without serious systemic or interpersonal issues fueling it?  Then you will want to think about how to clearly explain the impacts, set some expectations, and make sure you consistently model the kind of culture you want to create. 

But if the negative gossip is coming from deeper organizational problems – entrenched conflict, a lack of psychological safety, or toxic, bullying or harassing behaviour that has gone unchecked – you will need to do the harder and longer work of addressing those root causes. This may feel daunting, but in the long run, you will be creating a healthier workplace focused on honesty and mutual respect. 

If you would like some additional support setting boundaries, addressing conflict or encouraging members of your team to raise issues directly. Check out the upcoming cohort training, Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces starting March 20, 2024, or sign up for our newsletter to learn about upcoming offerings.