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A few weeks ago, I wrote a column entitled Make the company grapevine work for you, in which I suggested that leaders embrace the company rumour mill and use it to their advantage.
But I realized later, after a couple of conversations with clients, that I may have inadvertently caused some of you to think that I was endorsing negative gossip – the kind of idle chitchat that increases conflict, decreases morale, and breaks down trust within the team. Unequivocally, that was not my intention. Negative gossip about others is never acceptable in the workplace. And as a leader, you have a responsibility to make this unambiguous to your employees.
Yes, there is a difference between trivial banter and negative gossip. Idle chatter at the water cooler or the loading dock is at best neutral. But if the dialogue is incendiary or humiliating to the person being spoken of, then it has crossed the line into negative gossip. The distinction between the two lies primarily in intent. If the conversation is meant to be hurtful, or cast negative aspersions, or to create conflict, then it's unquestionably gossip. If the outcome is intra-team cliques or rifts between team members, then it's definitely gossip. And ultimately, as relationships get strained and trust levels plummet, negative gossip will be the death of teamwork.
Set the ground rules
But it doesn't have to be that way. Set a zero-tolerance policy around workplace gossip and you'll quickly gain a reputation for leading a positive and productive workplace.
Here is the rule to live by: "Don't say anything negative about a person unless he or she is actually in the room." Be a role model for this statement and staunchly and steadily stick to the rule yourself. Insist that your employees do the same. If you hear someone start up with "Did you hear what he did?" in a negative context, stop him or her, immediately, and repeat the rule.
If staff disparage or mock people who aren't there, when they say "Did you hear what she did?" and it's not a compliment, when they snicker about someone else's faux pas – all they really mean is that they have nothing better to do than talk about other people. Gossip wastes time that could be spent on more productive and positive conversations. Perhaps more importantly, it creates a culture where people lack respect for one another.
So set the standard clearly, echo the rule repeatedly, and create the environment deliberately. The word about your rule will spread fairly quickly, and not in a bad way. Here's how I see it: If Katrina has a problem with something Alex is doing, the best outcome can only be realized if she discusses it with Alex rather than with everyone else. And if it's not her place to say anything to Alex, then it's most certainly not her place to say anything about him to anyone else.
Encourage positive gossip
Positive gossip, on the other hand, is a good thing – for both employees and organizations. Positive gossip is simply sharing success stories – accounts of how individuals have gone out of their way to give great customer service, or contribute to an important team goal, or propose an idea that has led to process or product improvements. Such reports create team and company pride, boost employee morale and ultimately reduce staff turnover. In fact, make it a point at every team meeting to go around the table and ask your employees to share one notable accomplishment about another person in the room. Not only will you create a constructive working environment, but you'll build energy and enthusiasm among your people.
Communicate openly and often
I've said this before: Share what you know, openly and often. When communication from their leaders is scarce, people make up information to fill the void. Giving employees frequent information, even if it's partial or preliminary, minimizes the need for speculation and thus the impact of gossip. And if you've taken the time to articulate your expectations about what gossip is or isn't, then you give your staff permission to hold each other accountable for creating a positive "gossip-free" workplace.
Negative gossip in the workplace is simply not acceptable. And it's up to you, the leader, to establish the team norms and model the behaviour you expect from others.
Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author who turns managers into leaders, drawing upon her over 17 years of first-hand experience as a leader in Corporate Canada. www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.