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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Gossip: What's It Costing Your Business?


Previously published on Forbes.com.

The gossipy new book about the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, has been released. Excerpts published in advance in the Guardian and New York Magazineshow various West Wingers gleefully stabbing each other in the back. The excerpts have roiled the government and inspired an official statement by President Trump attacking his former advisor and friend, Steve Bannon.

People love gossip. Fire and Fury, of course, is celebrity gossip (a big industry), but just as in the West Wing, gossip in your own organization – in which we share damaging information about the people we work with on the down low – is incredibly divisive and damaging.   We all know it’s bad but – tell the truth – we’ve all done it. Sometimes, we do it to be funny or shocking. Sometimes, we want to seem in the know. Sometimes, we’re just being mean. This is the definition of gossip (in case you've never looked it up): “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”   

In other words, it’s a kissing cousin to lying.

If you are a leader, you must do whatever you can to put an end to gossip. Why? Gossip distracts teams and decreases productivity. Think about it. If a company has 2,000 employees, and each employee spends one hour a day gossiping, that adds up to thousands of lost hours.

What else does gossip do? In “Passing the Word,” which appeared in The Academy of Management Review, Nancy Kurland and Hope Pelled identified gossip’s power to:

  • Erode trust and morale.
  • Increase anxiety among employees as rumors circulate without clear information as to what is and is not fact.
  • Create divisiveness as people take sides.
  • Hurt feelings and damage reputations.
  • Cause attrition as good employees leave the company, frustrated by the unhealthy environment.

Everyone knows gossip is bad for an organization’s health and culture, but what can a leader do to stop it?

 Attacking Gossip Head On

A team at a national healthcare company was in trouble. Many team members, and even the team leader, had been gossiping about one of the women on the team. The rumor was that Rebecca was about to lose her job; she and the boss weren’t getting along. The team leader even mentioned it to an outside vendor… who asked Rebecca about it.

Predictably, Rebecca was hurt. She was also mad. She contacted a lawyer. Then, I got a call. Could I help? The team was a mess.

We gathered everyone together, including Rebecca, for a two-and-a-half-day retreat, and began with a “clearing.”   Each person took responsibility for what they had done or not done to make things worse. For example, if they heard someone say something hurtful about someone else, and didn’t say anything – or, worse, repeated it – they ‘fessed up.

The team leader kicked it off, tearfully admitting what she had done, and apologized to everyone and especially to Rebecca. That made it easier for others. Over the course of the retreat, the team mopped up many messes.

It was not an easy retreat, but it was a valuable one. Rebecca chose to stay and start fresh.   

Maybe you don’t have a big mess like this on your team, but you know your people are gossiping. What should you do?

1.   Don’t do it yourself. Before saying anything to someone about somebody else, ask yourself, “Am I absolutely sure this information is true? And even if I am, is it important that others know?   And if it is important, why aren’t I speaking to the person directly?” If you can’t answer all these questions satisfactorily, pipe down. You’re not helping anyone, including yourself.

2.   Stop others from doing it. This is harder. You need to be willing to make people uncomfortable and maybe even mad because you’ve called them out. But that’s what it sometimes takes to maintain a healthy organizational culture. You might say something like, “Mike, I am uncomfortable with what you’ve said about Natasha. If you have an issue with her, I want you to take it up with her. I’d like you to clear it up. So, when are you planning to have that conversation?”    

Creating a healthy culture is the result of many courageous micro-moments like that. Not only can you do it, you must.