I was once working with a leadership team, helping them to all “go and grow” in the same direction. We were going through the process of building a culture of trust and respect, and I felt like we kept hitting a brick wall. There was something there, blocking the team members from fully trusting one another. And as we all know, trust is the cornerstone, the foundation of team unity and collaboration. Without it, you wind up having each department functioning like a separate silo.
I must admit, I was a bit baffled about this team, so I scheduled a meeting with Jim, one of the key players to get his perspective on the situation. Jim made a comment about Mary in passing that caused me to hit the rewind button. And that’s when I discovered the obstacle that had been preventing the team from truly being cohesive.
Jim’s comment was something to the effect of, Mary, well, basically sucks at her job. He went on to say that Sue, the leader of the team, talked about Mary quite frequently to the rest of the team, and team members were also talking about her. I said, “So let me get this right. Everybody knows about Mary’s degree of suckage except Mary? And your leader talks about one team member to other team members?” Jim said, “Yep, that’s about it. You got it right.”
I could instantly diagnose that the problem with the team was an all-too-common, insidious “cancer” that was eating away at this organization’s culture. The disease? Gossip.
Managers, bosses, executives, and leaders, you embark upon a slippery slope when you talk about one employee to another. It’s bad enough when team members are talking and gossiping about each other, but when the leader does it, the results are especially damaging.
You will throw away building trust, creating unity, or cultivating cohesiveness if you are allowing, tolerating, and/or especially if you are participating in gossip. Small children can quickly figure out that if you’re gossiping about “Mary,” then you are likely gossiping about them. Therefore, no respect and certainly no trust. Period.
I don’t have a quick cure if this cancer attacked your organization, but I can prescribe a course of treatment.
- You go first. Whether you’re in a leadership role or not, make it a hard and fast personal policy not to gossip about anyone on the team. I think Stephen Covey stated it best: “Be loyal to those not present.” If someone starts to talk negatively about another employee, imagine that the person being gossiped about is right there listening. Resist joining in and encourage him to give the co-worker the benefit of the doubt. You are being watched and people will follow your lead.
- Communicate early and often. People have a tendency to speculate and let their imaginations run wild when they don’t know what’s going on. Keep them informed every step of the way, and encourage them to come directly to you with any questions or concerns.
- Have a zero-tolerance policy. Explain how damaging gossip is to team unity and trust, and let team members know it won’t be tolerated. Period. Then follow through and have severe consequences for anyone caught gossiping.
- Don’t sweep problems under the rug. Deal with performance issues right away and don’t hope they’ll go away. Business author, Dave Ramsey, tells his team that negatives go up and positives go down. In other words, problems are brought to the leader, not to everybody eating lunch in the break room. Positives, atta boys/atta girls, go to team members when they’ve done an excellent job.
- Hold people accountable and make sure you’re even-handed about it. When you hold everyone on the team accountable, you earn team members’ respect. However, if you want to breed hostility and resentment on the team, try holding some people to a higher standard than others. Watch the disease spread!
- Think twice before you confide. Mature leaders know that “people issues” are confidential and it is never appropriate to confide in other team members. It can be lonely at the top, but hey, that’s why they pay you the medium-sized bucks.
Yes, although gossip is a terrible disease in any organization, it does not have to be terminal. When in doubt, remember what Thumper (from the movie “Bambi”) says,
If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all!
- How has gossip affected your team cohesiveness or unity?
- What have you done to shut down gossip in your organization?
We’d love to hear about your experience with this insidious disease. Leave a comment on our blog below and share your insights with our community.
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Jennifer Ledet, CSP, is a leadership consultant and professional speaker (with a hint of Cajun flavor) who equips leaders from the boardroom to the mailroom to improve employee engagement, teamwork, and communication. In her customized programs, leadership retreats, keynote presentations, and breakout sessions, she cuts through the BS and talks through the tough stuff to solve your people problems.