I write about all of us: you, me, and the guy whose office is across the hall; from the office messenger to the Executive Director/CEO.
We all know that engaging with gossip is not what we should do and yet, it happens.
Underneath our gossip are our needs.
Every time we gossip, what we really are doing is trying to meet a need: our need for human connection, our need to express our anger, and our need to understand.
Gossip is so compelling because it meets our needs momentarily. It is like a boomerang. When we engage in gossip – we send negative energy outward only to have it return in a more toxic form.
The goal of this post is to allow us to gain awareness about what is really going on behind the gossip.
Hopefully, we will understand a little more about theemotional needs that drive us to gossip and how gossip functions within an organizational culture.
I am going to give a link to an insightful article, propose an awareness exercise to gather information about our “gossiping self”, and give four tips on how to gossip “better”.
Of course there are some people in the international workspace that actually want to do harm to others and use gossip as their primary weapon. However, most of us fall into gossip because:
- it is an easy way to walk away from our own vulnerability in the workplace;
- it makes us feel momentarily connected to others;
- it is a compelling if not fascinating diversion from our own work;
- it smoothly plays on our emotional needs and fears.
Gossip is basically talking about another person or group. It is idle talk or speculation about personal or professional affairs. Gossip can be negative, it can also be neutral, and it even can include positive comments.
Falling into gossip is easy because the emotional urges that drive us to gossip are strong. Some of them are:
- A need for human connection: We all need to connect with others in the workplace and talking about colleagues definitely creates a moment of privileged contact and “fitting in”;
- A need to express negativity: There are a lot of things to feel negative about – and talking about others allows us to express this natural negativity – anger about unethical behavior, unequal treatment, anger about having no support and comfort in the organizational setting, frustration about not feeling any “flow” to our work, etc.
- A need to understand: In such a complex work environment, we are always seeking to understand how and why things are happening around us. Speculating about others always includes elements of trying to make sense of circumstances that seem unclear;
Added to this, gossip has a strong group function. In the article “The Science of Gossip”, Frank McAndrew lists the following five main functions of gossip in groups:
- Reinforce, or punish, the lack of morality and accountability in our environment; reveal our passive aggression, express our desire to isolate and harm others;
- Indicate what we feel is acceptable and unacceptable behavior;
- Build and maintain a sense of community with shared interests, information and values;
- Create privileged relationships (friendships, romantic relationships, alliances, etc.);
- Lean into a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information (i.e. the grapevine).
In trying to understand the emotional drive towards gossip, I read a few articles this week. The one that resonated with me the most was Peter Vajda’s article“Gossip – a form of workplace violence”. If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend reading it here
If we want to change even a little bit how often we gossip or what we gossip about, we have to be aware of what we are actually doing. To gain awareness about our unique style of gossip, we can conduct a “gossip investigation” to reveal concrete gossip patterns and preferences:
When: When during the day do I tend to gossip? i.e. at the end of my day when I feel tired, after my team meeting, when I get home from work, when my supervisor asks me about my colleagues, etc.;
Where: In which locations do I gossip most? i.e. at the office, at dinner with colleagues, on the phone, etc.
With Whom: With whom do I gossip? i.e. with my partner, my office mate, colleagues who I trust, my supervisor, my parents, etc.;
Topics of choice: What topics do I usually gossip about? i.e. other’s personal work habits, authority figures in the workplace, other people’s failures, when I do not “win”, etc.
Once we are clear about our gossip style, we can take the inquiry deeper by focusing on uncovering our needs just underneath our gossip. When we gossip – we want something that feels important to us.
When we gossip, what do we really want?
- Do I want to express my anger towards another person?
- Do I want to create an alliance with whom I am speaking?
- Do I want to fit in?
- Do I want to drive a wedge between two people?
- Do I want to state my opinion about another person’s behavior?
- Do I want to warn someone?
- Do I want to feel more emotional connection?
These wants are tied to the emotions we feel, whether it be anger, disgust, happiness, fear, sadness or surprise.
Stopping to gossip is no small pursuit; every world religion and wisdom tradition urges us not to gossip. If we want to evolve from gossip towards something more skillful – we can start by:
- being curious about the emotion driving the gossip;
- finding a better way to take care of ourselves;
If we are going to gossip anyway, we can focus on doing it better. Better means decreasing its harm and its reach.
Limit the reach: Putting a limit on the number of people with whom we share information might limit potential damage; try sharing information with a maximum of two trusted people (ideally not in your workplace) and then stop. However, there is no way to ensure that these “trusted” friends will not in turn share the information with others;
Gossip partner: find a friend/partner/colleague/family member who shares similiar values and share information with them only, knowing it won’t go beyond our dyad.
Write and trash: Instead of talking, practice writing down "gossip thoughts" on paper and then throwing it out. This might help you express yourself and relieve some of the tension you feel in the moment;
Gossip positively: when you talk about others, practice saying positive things. This reorientation on positivity helps shift the focus.
Gossip harms us and others and erodes organizational culture. By gossiping we are taking ourselves further and further away from our own needs and emotions.
Gossip is not only a type of workplace violence, it is also a form of self-denial.
Now it is over to you, what else needs to be said about gossip? I welcome your thoughts and comments, write to me here