Work gossip: We’ve all heard it, and some of us have spread it — whether that action took place around the water cooler, via text or through email.
There are mixed views about gossip: Some say that gossip is toxic, and I tend to agree. Others, such as Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, actively encourage it.
But at my company, our definition of gossip is clear: “unproductive communication with someone who cannot help solve the problem at hand.” In short, this kind of talk pollutes a work environment.
Personally, I believe humans’ tendency to gossip can be transformed into better communication all around. Here are some intentional steps leaders can take to flip office chattiness on its head and model the behavior they want their employees to emulate.
1. The art of redirection
Gossip feels like fun because it’s juicy and secretive. Team members get excited and share it quickly. But why not consider the following notion: Leaders can redirect the passionate feelings gossip generates to improve everyday office communication on important subjects.
Imagine treating pertinent work news with the same excitement. It would spread important information quickly and with enthusiasm. Have an update on a project? This is a great opportunity to put your skills into action. Channel that zeal, and let others know!
The important differentiator is that communicating exciting, relevant topics in the office leads to idea generation and productivity. If you can apply gossip’s fervent energy to a new type of message, your own communication skills will improve radically and can help advance the entire team.
2. Honesty first
I’m a huge proponent of honesty in the workplace, which is why I strive to be open with my associates about my own life. I also encourage them to share their problems with me. Gossip, on the other hand, dishes on personal or professional issues without purporting to support the individual or find a solution.
Gossiping team members should use their conversation to better communicate their problems to other teammates or with management. The workplace simply isn’t the right environment for vague, wholesale venting.
Instead of sharing or complaining about another person’s difficulties — as a gossiper might — try to identify the correct person whose position or interpersonal skills make him or her the right person to address the issue. Then, discuss your information with that individual in a respectful, appropriate way. If your situation concerns another team member, don’t complain to coworkers. Seek out management or resources in the human-resources department (we call it the People Area).
You’ll need to make the call on a case-to-case basis. If you’re unsure about sharing information, ask, “Will this solve a problem or advance my team?” If you’re willing to handle the problem at hand openly and honestly, the answer usually will be a resounding “yes.”
3. Client-facing communication
Why do people love to gossip? For starters, engaging in this type of communication can foster a sense of intimacy between coworkers and friends. Reformed gossipers can analyze the way chitchat creates trust and connections and use this to their advantage, especially with customers.
This means disclosing appropriate information to customers in a way that makes them feel important, valued and privy to company happenings. Sales teams leverage this kind of rhetoric to their advantage all the time. Chummy client-facing communication isn’t gossip. It’s constructive precisely because it can lead to better relationships and better sales.
4. Focus on the positive.
Most important, perhaps, is reversing our primary focus on problems in the first place. Gossip is damaging because it breeds negativity. Spreading good news and laudable attainments can be a great alternative. Management should lead by example in this regard, and it’s easy to start. Make it a habit to recognize and share accomplishments made by associates on all levels.
Leaders should be clear about which types of communication are acceptable. Warmly encourage this positive sharing, drawing out the elements that make gossip fun and spinning them into celebrations of effort. It could take your team to the next level.
Related: How to Stay Positive at Work
5. Become a communication master.
These tenets guide communication within our company:
- Say what you mean. Be clear and make direct requests.
- Write and speak in a way that your audience can understand.
- Address issues only with those who possess the ability to help you solve them.
- Use “I” statements, not “we” statements. Speak only on behalf of yourself.
Altogether, these principles make for more open, beneficial and energetic communication in the workplace. Once you make the shift, I’ve an inkling you’re likely to find productive communication more satisfying than gossip in the long run.