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The Cost of Workplace Gossip



“The Scenario“

I wanted you to know that Sharon did not go to all of the training classes. I thought you should know.” Jane, just back from a training seminar with three other colleagues, was having a coffee break with her boss.

“Was there a problem? Do you have concerns?” Ted, the boss, hadn’t heard anything but positive comments about the training and was surprised to hear Sharon had not been at all of the scheduled events.

“Well, I guess I just thought that since you sent us and paid for it, you needed to know what happened. I think Sharon had some issues with the trainers. You know how picky she can be,” Jane said.

“I am sorry to hear that. Sharon didn’t say anything negative. I appreciate your letting me know.”

Ted walked away determined to get to the bottom of the attendance issue. He went straight to his office and sent an email to the trainers asking for an attendance record. Having paid a significant fee for the training, he was concerned that maybe Sharon had not taken the training seriously.

What’s The Problem?

On the one hand, this might seem like a helpful interaction and an appropriate follow-up action on the part of both Jane (the gossiper) and Ted (the boss) about Sharon (the apparent problem participant). This isn’t an uncommon coffee break or water cooler conversation after folks have been out of the office for training or team building. However, it is the worst type of interaction for building team trust and accountability.

We are coaches, trainers and consultants. We regularly coach employees, conduct leadership trainings or two-day corporate team off-sites. Often, we are working with people who are sent by their leaders or organization. We have been in the situation where we have gotten the follow-up email from Ted (the boss) asking about someone’s attendance or participation in a coaching or leadership development program. It can be a touchy situation. Frequently, a boss has paid to have an employee get some additional support or training, and they may feel like it is their business to know whether or not an employee showed up and took things seriously.

The best solution to this type of situation, however, isn’t office gossip and indirect check-ins with an outside trainer or coach. No, that isn’t going to resolve a motivational issue or inspire trust and confidence for people being asked to step out of their comfort zone in a learning/coaching environment.

If Ted had sent Sharon to the training because of a significant performance issue and had discussed this directly with the trainers and Sharon, the circumstances would be quite different.

The Best Solution

The best solution here would have been for Ted to ask Jane (the gossiper) about her intention. It might go something like, “Jane, I am going to stop you right here. I am curious why you are telling me about Sharon’s efforts at the training. What is your intention? More importantly, have you already spoken directly to Sharon about this?

”Ted may have learned that there was a genuine concern or fear in speaking directly to Sharon, which may have needed to be addressed. However, it was much more likely that Jane was uncomfortable in having open and direct dialogue with Sharon. It is so much easier to talk about someone rather than to them. Jane may have found it easier to tell the boss and let him deal with it.

Normally, this type of situation goes like this: Ted asks Sharon to come into his office and he says, “Sharon, someone said, that you didn’t take the training seriously.” Unfortunately, this is gossip, and gossip breeds politics, slashing any sort of team trust.

Sharon’s first question will be, “Who said that? Why didn’t they come talk to me directly if they had an issue with me?” Now, Sharon is distrustful of all three of her peers who went to the training with her. The war is on.

This scenario breaks down team accountability as well. Sure, you want team members to know the boss will deal with problem behaviors. But first, you want teammates to first hold each other accountable before bringing the problem to the boss. Second, Ted would have been best served if he spoken directly to Sharon, asking about her attendance. He may have even be able to mention having heard that Sharon had some issues with the trainers. The conversation could have gone something like:

“Sharon, I know you are very picky about these types of trainings. So I was wondering how it went? I had some concerns whether you would hang in there if you didn’t like the way things were going. I am curious about your experience.”

Once Ted participates in office gossip the potential of stopping breakdowns becomes very difficult. Ted’s job is to let his employees know he wants them to be able to deal directly with each other, and if that isn’t possible, to solicit his help as a last resort. The least effective, and most damaging, approach is indirect gossip about a teammates poor behavior.

It is easy as an outside coach, consultant or trainer to get caught in the same trap. Unless I know in advance that there is a performance issue, and that a boss is going to be following up with me, I would not give specific details of an individual’s efforts. My job is to help the leaders like Ted to deal with concerns openly and address team dynamics in a way that doesn’t create distrust.

In The End

In the end, Ted went back and had a frank conversation with Jane. He spoke with Jane and Sharon together about their thoughts on the training. He asked them directly about his concerns regarding their full engagement and participation. What he discovered was that Sharon was quite willing to share what she liked and disliked. She acknowledged missing an afternoon due to a stomach virus and that she had asked to share a meal with one of the trainers in order to catch up on the material she had missed. Jane had no idea Sharon had been sick and had assumed the special meal was because Sharon was being difficult.

In the end, their open and direct dialogue helped Jane understand Sharon better, and Ted confidently walked away knowing he had made a very good investment in the program.

Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell are Coaches, Consultants, and Speakers at thrive! inc. (www.thriveinc.com) They help business leaders and their teams use the energy of conflict, rather than – avoid or defuse it – to get to creative, innovative, profitable business results. You can see their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! On YouTube. They would be happy to coach you, consult with your team, or to speak at your next event. Contact them at thrive@thriveinc.com


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