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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Terranova

The Real Consequences of Workplace Gossip

girl keeping a secret

We're all familiar with the signs: hushed tones behind the watercooler, wide-eyed facial expressions, and animated hand gestures that reveal a juicy gossip exchange between colleagues. It's human nature to want in on the 411 (dating myself a bit, there). We want to know about office drama and what's going on behind the scenes, but is it really better to be the one gossiping instead of the one gossiped about?

Too often, gossip serves as an unconscious fast track to connection with others. Engaging in such discussions signals allegiance with colleagues by saying, “I’m on your side.” However, it's crucial to recognize that these connections formed through gossip are quite weak. Brene Brown coined the term counterfeit connection to describe what’s really happening when we gossip because while we perceive closeness and intimacy when we join others in speaking ill of someone, we are building a connection based on broken confidentiality with someone else. While gossip may develop the perception of close ties with some colleagues, it comes at the cost of others and undermines the long-term integrity of all our relationships.

In this lesson, we will delve into the impact of gossip on organizational culture and develop more effective strategies for building connections with colleagues. Together, we will confront the toxicity of gossiping behavior and challenge ourselves to use more adaptive means to develop quality partnerships.

Gossip Triggers Everyone

Anyone who has experienced primary school knows the feeling of gossip, both being a part of it and being the subject. Those quiet whispers and animated faces take most of us right back to the schoolyard where the fear of exclusion felt like life-or-death. The reason gossip triggers a fight-or-flight response in most people and ignites a strong urge for self-protection is that we are hard-wired for connection. Back when humans still needed to carry a club around to survive, exclusion from a social group was tantamount to death. The amygdala in our brains has yet to evolve sufficiently enough to distinguish the difference between ostracization from a primitive tribe and being on the outs with the mean girls at the office. That fear taught our young minds that the best defense is a good offense, so we learned to settle for shallow connections with others in the hopes it would prevent them from circling the wagons against us. Our sage adult minds know this strategy doesn’t work, but gossip triggers our primitive brain, compels us to revert to our younger selves who had to compete for a place in the social hierarchy, and sacrifices the long-term quality of our adult working relationships.

Gossip Reflects More About You

Every action we take is a vote for the kind of person we want to be. If integrity is how we behave when no one is watching, what does gossiping say about us? What does it say about our values, trustworthiness, and the importance of strong relationships when we engage in behavior that fosters connection at the expense of others? Ultimately, gossip reflects more about your character than the subject of the juicy dialog. Whether you realize it in the moment or not, gossiping opens you up to character assassination and questions about your integrity. That is a big price to pay for the temporary thrill of a shallow connection. Look back on the times you have gossiped at the expense of another, and consider the impact gossiping has on your relationship with yourself.

Gossip Sacrifices Long-Term Relationships

Choosing to engage in gossip is shortsighted. While it may provide an immediate, superficial connection with fellow gossipers, the long-term cost is the quality of your partnerships. When you participate in gossip about someone, others will assume you'll do the same to them someday. It quietly erodes trust and discourages colleagues from being open and vulnerable with you. True connection comes from vulnerability, trust, and the freedom to be yourself with others – qualities we sacrifice when we engage in gossiping behavior.

You Never Know The Wounds You’re Opening

Remember, others perceive gossiping behavior through the lens of their painful experiences. We all know the sting of being talked about and remember how we felt toward those who hurt us. When you gossip, you unconsciously align yourself with hurtful people from the past. By becoming associated with those past feelings of exclusion, you create a significant barrier to developing connections that is difficult to overcome. Before you inadvertently tear open a childhood wound in one of your colleagues, consider the potential consequences and whether you want to be associated with that kind of pain in someone else’s life.

Handling Gossip with Grace

When I think of an anti-gossip role model, I think of my former colleague and current dear friend, Kate. When we'd gather and chat at work, Kate would listen, then act as the voice of reason. She'd immediately assume positive intent and give the subject of gossip the benefit of the doubt. Kate often said things like, "that can't be true" and "there's no way she would do that" before moving to compassion for the person in question. Kate never initiated gossip, refrained from sharing others' information without permission, and avoided sanctimonious lectures about not gossiping. Instead, she set a powerful example by handling gossiping behavior with grace. My trust in Kate is absolute because I trust her with my deepest vulnerabilities. I believe my secrets are safe with her because in almost 15 years of working together and being friends, I've never heard her say a negative word about anyone. My best advice for handling gossip gracefully: be like Kate.

Being like Kate

  1. You don't need to stage dramatic displays of noncompliance or chastise people for gossiping to make a point. Let your actions in handling gossip with others silently demonstrate your character.

  2. Avoid initiating gossip and refrain from sharing information that isn't yours to share. It's a gift when others entrust us with their vulnerabilities, and we should treat that act of faith with compassion and respect.

  3. Act as the voice of reason and extend the benefit of the doubt. Try presenting the alternative perspective and pointing out flaws in poorly reasoned conclusions.

  4. Don’t assume that you have the facts. We've all played the game of "telephone" enough to realize that when we're discussing something, we likely don't have the full story.

  5. Assume that other people are inherently good and deserving of our positive opinion. While not everyone may ultimately merit high esteem, it's better to allow them to reveal their true character rather than allowing their actions to drag your own character down.

Trust with our vulnerability is the most powerful connection two people can share. When we place our faith in someone and expose our insecurities, we make something meaningful vulnerable to another person. What does it say about us if we sacrifice that trust for the fleeting thrill of shallow connections? Good leaders should contemplate the far-reaching impacts of workplace gossip and think twice before engaging in such behavior. We have the chance to transcend the wounded children within us and an opportunity to aid each other in healing. Let's move away from the toxicity of gossip and consider how we can uplift one another instead. And with that, I'm off to unfollow Perez Hilton and cancel my subscription to Us Weekly.

Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.

She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.


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