GOSSIP AT WORKPLACE – BANE OR BOON?
GOSSIP is the name of the Davis Guggenheim directed American Movie I had the privilege of seeing more than a decade back. But, I liked it so much that it is still fresh in my mind. The movie centers on an interesting idea about Gossip and rumor, which if properly dispersed and nurtured, can be used as a powerful weapon.
The story hangs on three youngsters, the rich kid Derrick, the shy and moody artist Travis and the nice girl Jones, all of them fun loving students of the worlds’ most popular subject “Media Studies”. After attending a journalism class taught by Professor Goodwin, they think of working on the increasing blurred line between news and rumor, to start a rumor to see how far and fast it spreads and how distorted it becomes. Derrick gets a juicy piece of material when in an off-campus party, he finds two students Naomi, a rich girl known for her vow of chastity, and his boy-friend Beau entering into an upstairs bed-room together. He and his friends decide to make Beau and Naomi having sex as the subject matter of rumor, though it actually did not happen. With the help of some campus friends, the rumor spreads like a wild fire. At first, this juicy piece of gossip is fun till it gets out of hand and Naomi starts believing that her boy-friend might have actually raped her while she was drunk and passed out in the party, as she was too drunk to remember anything. Naomi brings charge of rape against Beau by filing a complaint with the local police. The three who have conjured up the whole fiasco realise that the situation is really out of their control. Though Jones begins to feel bad about it and wants to come out clean, it is too late. Deciding to remain silent, the threesome find, to their dismay, that gossip has become really stronger than the truth. It comes to the climax (or you may call it anti-climax) when Beau is led away in hand-cuffs and Naomi hits the bottle. The rest part of the story was not of much interest to me when it adds all sorts of red- herrings with twists and turns in real filmy style tackling revenge, deception going far beyond plausibility.
But, for the HR professional in me, the movie was most engaging when it was tackling the thorny issue of news versus gossip and the fine line separating them. It was really interesting to understand to what extent a little lie or gossip can go in organizational set up. It is still more absorbing to realize that Gossip is all pervasive existing in all workplace situations and everybody is involved in some kind of gossip at some time or the other. If pen can be mightier than the sword, then spoken words can be still stronger. With the advent of mobile technology and new generation apps like WhatsApp and also social networking sites, it is worthwhile examining if Gossip in workplace is really bad and if so how to get out of the clutches of Gossip or how to commandeer Gossip for workplace effectiveness.
What is Gossip?
From the tea kiosk to water points, from chit-chatting in the office to family get-togethers to cocktail parties or cellphone apps or social networking sites; everywhere we find people enjoy the pleasure of talking about others. Even when we go to any professional conference, there is no dearth of people engaged in official and non-official gossip or rumor, a close cousin of gossip. Sometimes, some unintentional and casual remark or a joke to break the monotony makes rumor and gossip wheel to rotate. It gathers momentum when the listener gives credence to it, lubricates the rumor and gossip wheel in repeating it to others or forwarding the message to others through his favorite app; ultimately the wheel developing enough momentum and potential to tear the workplace apart like a bulldozer.
Though Gossip generally means malicious talking about some individual, it also encompasses informal communication about objects or events – not just people. Gossip can be true or false or both, but there is no denying the fact that it is universal.
Gossip is cancerous
Gossip is seductive. No one can emphatically say that he is immune to gossip. Only a couple of days back, I received a message from a WhatsApp group of senior HR professionals, of which I am a member, about the effectiveness of Japanese style of Management – Muda (the unnecessary delay and unnecessary spending). The message was very powerful. But, what intrigued me was that to drive the point home, the name of a very reputed hotel of a reputed group was mentioned as if all was in a state of absolute pathetic condition in the hotel, before the so called Japanese consultant showed them the mirror. Having visited the said hotel a number of times earlier for conferences, workshops & get-togethers, I could not believe any of the averments made. I sent a reply – “Good one. But, I wonder whether it is true or just a story to stress a point”. It was very nice of the sender to admit that he was not sure about the veracity of the story. The point I communicated the group, and want to mention here also, is that “If we are not sure of the veracity, we have no right to quote the name the hotel and defame it. Without quoting the name of the hotel, the message could have been equally strong.” I trust my honorable WhatsApp group member has not concotted the story himself; he must have simply forwarded the message received from somebody else. This shows how we can be dragged into a gossip and malicious campaign unknowingly and unwittingly.
Gossip reigns where angels fear to trade
Gossip generally flourishes in work place culture that is not transparent. It is rampant in workplaces where there is lack of trust in relationships – relationship between management and the employees, between management and trade unions, in different levels of management, between supervisor and his staff.
When there is lack of communication between the management and the employees and when management believes in withholding of the information particularly at a time of an impending crisis, it creates a vacuum. Employees feel frustrated out of fake and imaginary fears. People develop their own assumptions and surmises. They start saying all sorts of things behind each-others’ back. Rumor and Gossip develop and spiral outwards like a tornado. The central theme is – “Nature avers a Vacuum” and if there is a vacuum in communication, rumor and gossip rush to fill it.
According to Ark C Chianti, a Human Resource Consultant and Author of the book “Built on Trust: Gaining Competitive Advantage in any Organization,”– “Workplace gossip is apt to be rampant in organizations where there is little closure, commitment or credible promises. If a workplace culture won’t address the job-related issues, it creates frustration for the employees because there is no closure. In turn, the employees see co-workers as obstacles rather than helpers and this creates an atmosphere ripe for malicious gossip.”
Gossip and rumor flourish if employes lack information and they have too much time on their hands. It also flourishes in a unionized workplace where management and labor are often at odds. The higher the level of tension, the swifter and more damaging is the gossip.
Gossip also develops when employees are bored or demoralized. When they are not engaged in work and they do not have knowledge of what is going on especially in matters of common interest, they try to speculate giving rise to gossip. As is said, “Idle mind is devil’s workshop”.
But, it is generally seen that where there is open communication and relationship between management & employees and employees & employees is based on trust, gossip is harmless and fulfills a function to form relationships.
Why should organizations care?
Though there is no standard method to evaluate how destructive a workplace gossip is, there is no denying the fact that gossip can wreak havoc in an organization. If Gossip is directed against an individual, it has the potential to ruin his reputation. The character of a person is destroyed in front of the entire organization. It is difficult to fathom how awful it can become for somebody if he is an object of Company ridicules. The workplace gossip brings down employees’ productivity and morale which acts as detriment for team work.
Organizations should care because when people are spending energy in gossiping and back-biting, obviously that energy is not being spent for being productive. The organization should care because gossip diverts people from work, decreases productivity, compromises customers’ services and can cause resentment and pain for people who are the targets, obviously undermining team work. Gossip consumes much more time than one may think, and time is important and non-replaceable.
There appears to be an increase in workplace gossip as a natural corollary in the present day work environment where companies have started taking drastic measures, setting standards and rules with destabilization and restructuring. Things happen so fast that Companies sometimes forget the importance of timely communication with employees, building their trust and carrying them to fulfill business objectives.
If gossip or rumor about a person is so harmful, it can well be imagined what damaging effect gossip or rumor directed against an organization can make, more so when such gossip originate from an internal source. I know of a restaurant in a town coming to almost close when gossip caught on that there is a leper working in the kitchen. People tend to believe without verifying and that is the strength of gossip.
Gossip is FINE
Look at all the buzz words we use and we face as we have completed more than a decade in the 21st century. Change, competition, down-sizing, re-engineering, merger and acquisition, job insecurity, plummeting morale, uncertainty and ambiguity in workplace with stress-related illness and burnout have become household words. Just like a pressure-cooker, if there is no method of relieving the pressure, the organization may explode; the employees including the leadership will not be able to handle the pressure. People find their own ways of releasing the pressure through gossip and rumor. Trying to block it will amount to choking the pressure valve. Workplace gossip can’t be controlled by the leadership. Any effort to control it typically drives it to the underground, which manifests again with a darker hue and with more malice. Organizations thinking that they can eradicate gossip have typically put themselves in a no-win situation.
Once it is clearly understood that Gossip is universal, the responsibility of the Manager is to manage gossip at the work place and not confront it with the purpose of elimination (as it cannot be eliminated). In this context, it is required to understand why people gossip. Is it only a chit-chat to malign somebody or does it serve any social purpose? Gossip essentially performs four basic functions which I call FINE – ‘F’ denoting Friendship building, ‘I’ denoting Influence, ‘N’ for Net-working and ‘E’ for Efficiency.
One of the basic reasons why people gossip is friendship-building. When you gossip with somebody, by telling secrets about your own life and secrets of someone else or secrets about some organisational matters, it usually begets trust; the listener becomes close to you, a kind of intimacy is developed between the person who gossip and the listener. It allows to organise informal social groups within formal groups in an organisation. When you talk about someone not present, it also establishes a rapport with someone who is present. When the individuals engaged in gossip agree about the matters on gossip, their shared believes and views are reinforced. It is usually seen that people who gossip are good friendship-builders. It is aptly said by Oscar Wilde- “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.
The second function of Gossip is Influence. Whenever opportunity arises, people talk positive about themselves to make sure that their reputation is enhanced or at least maintained. Though we may not accept engaging ourselves in promoting self as a conscious strategy, whether we accept it or not, everybody has an onerous task of selling himself so that others have a positive impression about him. That is why we find in any organisation, extroverts are considered more successful than introverts. Though we may talk positively about a silent worker, a creative thinker; but generally the fruits of success are showered on extraverts who know the art of projecting themselves.
Another important function of Gossip is networking. As social animal working in a social Organisation, networking remains one of the most important function. This is strengthened by talking to people, by keeping relations, by discussing matters of common interest, which helps in functioning in the organisational set up beyond the normal organisational channels.
Efficiency in an organisational set up is also influenced by gossip. It is said: “Information is Power”. All the information that we need in an organisation do not come to us through e-mails, circulars, leaf-lets, news bulletins or through normal modes of communication. Gossip lends depth to thinking, breadth to evidence gathering and validity to decision making and increases efficiency. Managers need to develop an extra dimensional communication ability enabling them to step beyond the traditional and ritualistic in order to move beyond the existing or established. Gossip helps them to recognize it and to go beyond what is already available. The more we know the better we can move up, down and side-ways. Gossip gives us information on how to better interact with other people. It lays the foundation for knowing how to act and respond in a complicated social world in which we function. Gossip and rumour regarding improper behaviour helps us to construct a social map indicating what is accepted and what is not, which action can improve our status and efficiency and which does not. Gossip, good or bad, tells a lot about what we need, want and will get.
Gossip is not all that bad
Gossip is not all that bad. Most of the times, it is informative and gives the necessary feedback. Managerial blindness occurring more or less in each organisation is a direct outcome of the lack of preparedness to identify and recognize the non-formal communication channels like gossip, rumour and grapevine. Many of the best ideas of management are sown on cold and sour soil. Most warning regarding their success or failure comes through gossip and rumour. If feelings and attitude of people in the organisation are transmitted freely upwards, it serves as a timely warning for the management to realise when people are ready to accept and intervene.
Research studies have revealed that workers who gossip know more about what is going on in the organization than those who refrain from gossiping. If handled with care, Gossip can at times be actually helpful professionally.
Ride on the Dragon
There is an ancient Chinese saying “If you can’t beat the dragon, ride on it”. Gossip is universal and shall continue. Howsoever seriously we may try, we cannot wish it away from workplace situations. All the planning and preparations in the world together cannot eliminate Gossip in workplace. People will continue to talk about personalities and about organizations. But, however, we have a choice how we handle the stuff, how we respond. Wisdom lies in not confronting Gossip, but accepting it as a natural social behaviour and commandeering Gossip for organizational effectiveness.
Change the focus
Small people talk about people. They derive pleasure in talking about people, their folly, their faults or their achievements. But big people do not talk about individuals. They talk about ideas. And ideas are always good. Any addition is a bonus and must be cherished. It is an onerous responsibility for every manager and more so for the HR Manager to successfully change the focus of gossip from people to ideas, to shift the focus of Gossip to business objectives. This is very very hard to do, but also very very effective. But, how?
Cool professionalism is the only effective way to gain control on Gossip. Two Way communication can diminish gossip’s destructive force. Communication plays an effective role in breaking false perceptions, which is the root cause of Gossip. Keep employees informed. Have a robust system to listen to people. When people have a direct knowledge about what is happening in the organization, particularly about Company policies and directives, about future course of action, about matters concerning them, there is less room for speculation. Communication could be in small sound bytes of information so as not to overload the employees with too many details, but, however, focussing on information that, specifically, have an impact on them. Discussion between managers and employees must be continuous and open, so that there is not much scope left for planting stories and suspicions.
Managers and Supervisors must work on the culture of the organization and work on their own behaviour to remove the root cause of gossip. People who resist participating in an organizational culture of mutual appreciation may have serious personal problems, which must be attended to and problems must be managed so that there is no frustration amongst the employees. It is required to build a supportive culture rather than competitive.
After keeping the communication lines open, it must be made known to the individual employees that malicious personal gossip or baseless gossip against the organization is not conducive. Employees should be made to know how damaging it is to be engaged in gossip against the individual or the company. Chronic offenders spending inordinate time in gossiping must be confronted and should be made to know that such behaviour is not acceptable.
Gossip and Rumour should be dealt with immediately. If it is left unchecked, it can quickly go out of control. If a problem arises, individual employees should be talked to immediately and if necessary, a meeting between the victim of gossip and the rumour-monger could be helpful.
Attention to the above human details can make workplace happier, less prone to destructive talk and more productive.
Manage the Gossip
Since every workplace shall continue to have gossip, it is not a bad idea to try and use it for the better. An effective manager must not only listen to the gossip whenever it is originated (sometimes friendship with some gossip-mongers could be helpful) by ascertaining every gossip or rumour in circulation, but must also interprete what is heard. Normally gossip or rumour comprises partly of facts, to which are added some exaggeration, some interference and quite a lot of judgement. The manager must look deeper for the meaning and the feeling. Every manager must try to find out background information fuelling the gossip and feed people with correct information. In order to manage gossip, managers must develop willingness to communicate and build up an atmosphere of transparency and reliability.
Sometimes, Gossip can also be utilized by the manager, when he himself becomes the originator of the gossip or rumour. Though such action is very risky, but sometimes it can give a pointer where he stands. For example: If an organization thinking to make a change, but not yet decided and for some reason whatsoever does not want to go public about it to elicit the opinion of the people; and nevertheless interested to know how the employees will receive it, a seed can be planted that management is considering change, which is a way to taste the water with the employees. It can serve as way of getting a warning in advance. But it is really tricky and can go out of control unless monitored very very closely.
Gossip is nothing but natural
Gossip is natural. If people do not talk about other people, about their environment, about their organization; this indicates that there is something wrong and employees are socially indifferent or socially alienated. When gossip occurs, a great deal of information is exchanged. The real problem in gossip does not lie in Gossip per-se, rather in its contents. Gossip can be really helpful professionally if skillfully handled and managed. The real test before a manager lies in only accepting the cream and rejecting the rest.
I remember a Doha of Sant Kabir-
“Saadhu aisaa chaahiye
Jaise soop subhaay
Saar saar ko gahi rahe
Thothaa de udaay”
(A wise man should behave like a winnowing fan; throwing away the chaff while retaining the grains)
This should act as a pointer for every manager while dealing with Gossip.