By Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster
The Origins of GossipVerbal strength can be viewed as the female equivalent of male physical strength. Words are very powerful and it is every woman’s challenge to learn to use this gift responsibly, especially at work. Of course, as with any super power, words can be used for constructive or destructive purposes.
Perhaps the greatest temptation regarding words is to use them destructively, as gossip. To gossip (as we’re describing it) is to communicate information with the intent of eroding another person’s reputation, image, or standing in the recipient’s eyes.
When humans first appeared on the scene, gossip actually served a purpose. Members of early civilizations could use gossip to warn or alert each other regarding those people who were different, dangerous, or not to be trusted. The language of gossip was a necessary form of protection.
Over time, however, other means of communication have developed. Information about others became available via news media, telephones, televisions, radios, the Internet, personal and professional references, and credit checks. At the same time, society has established laws for punishing crimes and alerting us of dangers. And yet, the activity of gossip remains a primary means of communication and bonding, especially among women.
Gossip at Work
In the workplace, gossip is the ultimate equalizer, a sure way to cut someone down to size. If there’s anyone who you feel jealous of, competitive towards, angry at, or betrayed by, a juicy piece of gossip that erodes that person’s reputation or tarnishes their image can be music to your ears.
· Who doesn’t want to hear that the mean, controlling boss who made your life miserable has been fired?
· Why wouldn’t you want to tell your friend that your condescending coworker got drunk at a client dinner?
Gossip can be entertaining, funny, a tension breaker. Many people use gossip to achieve a false sense of intimacy. Gossip takes the focus off of the individuals who are interacting and puts it on someone else. Two coworkers gossiping about another person will feel ostensibly closer, perhaps because in sharing a secret about someone else’s misfortune, they can each feel better about themselves.
How Gossip Hurts
While it can be tempting and satisfying to gossip about other individuals at work, it really is a double-edged sword. Professionally, if you’re known as a gossip, it can hold you back. While you may receive extra attention from your peers for relaying spicy information about others, the people who could promote you may consider that same behavior a liability. You may be viewed as less trustworthy than other professionals, as incapable of holding something told in confidence. You may also be seen as someone who lacks discretion. Look around you. When was the last time the office gossip was promoted?
What Drives Us to Gossip?
Some people gossip when they are angry with a former friend or colleague. If they feel hurt or wronged by another person, a good piece of gossip can serve as retaliation. Others use gossip as power—a way to be considered “in the know” in a group or community. Still others resort to gossip when they feel jealous of or consider someone else a threat. Then there are the gossip girls who use scandalous tidbits about others to avoid talking about themselves.
Think about the last time you shared a piece of gossip. What motivated you to share? Was there someone you wanted to hurt, bring down a notch, or make fun of? Were you trying to impress the recipient or deflect attention from yourself? The clearer you are about what motivates you to gossip, the sooner you can make a conscious choice about whether to engage in this tempting habit at work.
The No Gossip Challenge
In our book, Mean Girls at Work—How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal, we challenge women to try a 30-day “No Gossip Diet.” If you are someone who engages in gossip at work on a regular basis, (or even if you think you aren’t a gossip) we encourage you to give it a try. Here’s how it works:
· Pick a start date and mark it on your calendar.
· Tell your friends. Tell everyone you normally talk with that you’re going on a “No Gossip Diet” for 30 days. See if anyone wants to join you.
· Keep a daily journal. Beginning day #1, write down the number of times you zipped your lips, walked away from a conversation, or held in what you really wanted to say to avoid gossiping.
· Notice who the “Gossip Girls” are. Who in your circle of coworkers tries to get you to engage in gossip, even though they know you’re on a diet?
· Notice how many of your relationships are built around gossip. If you aren’t talking about others, is there some other way you could be relating to these people?
· See how you feel after 30 days. You may decide that gossip no longer fits your lifestyle, or you may decide to limit it to celebrities and reality shows.
Don’t be mad at yourself if you fall off of the diet. The important thing is to become conscious of when you use gossip at work, to become aware of your motivation, and to try to unlearn this habit. To grow professionally, you need to stretch personally. Don’t expect perfection from yourself. It takes time to break a habit and skill to keep steering conversations in a positive direction.
The impulse to bond with others by sharing information is natural and in many cases, helpful. But gossip is one form of communication that doesn’t do anyone any good, especially in the workplace.
Cut the gossip out of your life and learn how to improve your communication skills with this AMA webinar.
About the Author(s)
Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster Katherine Crowley is a Harvard-trained psychotherapist. Kathi Elster is a management consultant and executive coach. They run K Squared Enterprises, a training firm that helps clients manage difficult situations in the workplace and are coauthors of Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal (McGraw-Hill, 2013).