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Gossip Creates Corporate Cancer



One of my (Susan’s) executive coaching client’s, Roger, had fallen into the trap of letting his team gossip. He had no idea that his own behavior was the source of the team dysfunction, or corporate cancer, as we call it, when we started coaching together.

Below are the comments Roger got in his one-on-one meetings with his direct reports after a team meeting, where he’d asked the team to speak honestly and to work on more direct communication.

  • “Look that meeting was awful. Mary Ann was so inappropriate.”

  • “It was too uncomfortable. Plus, Mary Ann was so mean to Joe. I’m not going to speak up now.”

  • “Mary Ann was on the attack and way out of line, don’t you agree? Poor Joe.”

Roger had been dealing with a highly dysfunctional team for a while. There’d been various sit-downs with HR where concerns from his team had been shared.

Shortly after one of those HR sessions, I was called to coach with Roger. His boss said Roger needed to get his team working together.

Roger was a leader who was known for his no-nonsense style when it came to getting results. But he was horrible at giving or receiving direct behavioral feedback. He also had a strong belief that people need to just get over their petty issues and get the job done.

From the onset of our coaching, most of the work was spent hearing about how there wasn’t enough time for dealing with team issues of a team he’d inherited. There was too much to do and no time to bring the team together for post-mortems when a project had gone poorly. In fact, he rarely got the entire team together at all, preferring to manage the team with one-on-ones.

Of course, Roger was stunned and disappointed when his boss told him needed the coaching. Roger thought he just needed to fire a few poor performers.

I talked him out of that move and encouraged him to develop more team accountability for feedback. However, for that to happen, he needed to be willing and able to support team members in speaking up, even if it got messy.

Roger response, “That’s not my job. I’m not trained in it. That’s for HR.”

“No. That is your job. It’s every leader’s job,” I said.

Unfortunately, most leaders aren’t trained in having tough conversations, much less coaching others on the team to have those tough conversations. However, leaders have to start somewhere.

As a leader, Roger had given his team permission to gossip, to talk only to him or to talk to HR instead of each other. This had played a big part in the dysfunction being created.

Of course, cleaning up that mess wasn’t going to be easy, pretty, or “appropriate.” When Roger’s team finally had a frank, raw conversation, where two members did get a bit messy and negative – Roger was NOT happy!

As I listened to Roger talk about the “horrible” team meeting, I waited until he made his concluding statement: “Mary Ann will have to go.”

“Roger, if you decide fire Mary Ann, she’ll be the scapegoat for a culture you created. You’ve enabled a culture that encourages gossip. That’s what’s breaking down trust and is a big part of your team’s poor performance. That is on you, not Mary Ann,” I said.

Roger wasn’t very pleased. I was fairly sure he was ready to fire me as well. However, he wasn’t the one who hired me, I knew I had a bit more time before I’d be done.

I continued, “Roger, since the coaching started, we’ve been working on having more direct conversations. You’ve made so many excuses why you haven’t had those conversations. All of those reasons are sidetracks. If one of your project team members made those excuses for not completing an assignment, you’d have none of it.”

I didn’t stop there, “I get it. You don’t like conflict. News flash: no one does. When people talk behind people’s backs, whether because of discomfort or fear– it’s like cancer – it grows spreads and becomes deadly!”

Roger was quiet. I wasn’t sure what Roger would do next.

What to Expect When Gossip Has Been the Norm

Roger’s situation is actually way too common.

No one wants to navigate a team meeting when uncomfortable things are said. However, when people haven’t spoken and issues remain underground, when they do come up, they’re loaded with all the energy from holding back.

Often organizations have adapted training and strict processes for having tough conversations. The problem is: people don’t practice or worse rely on HR to do that work.

HR skills and tools will not resolve emotional landmines without some messiness. Too often, training and tools provide some good technique, but if the human aspect isn’t addressed, that mess won’t disappear with more training or rules.

Barb, an Inspiring Leader

Years ago, we worked with the new head of HR in a very large national company. We’ll call her Barb.

Barb invited us in because from day one of her HR job she realized that her own team was horribly dysfunctional in having direct conversations. Her department set the example for having tough communications, and if she couldn’t turn around her own team, there was no way the toxic organizational culture would change.

Barbs first move was to have us facilitate her team in our two-day Kickstart Your Team Offsite. This offsite is a fast-paced, highly interactive offsite for leaders and their teams. We focus on both the smart and healthy side of your team and business. While your team is talking about business issues, tough conversations inevitably come up. We facilitate and teach your team how to have those real-time, open, honest debates and conversations effectively.

After the first offsite, Barb made it clear: once back in the office, she was no longer going to tolerate gossip or indirect communication on the team. She also hired us to do some coaching with her and follow-up sessions with her team to ensure the new path for a healthy organization would stick.

For six months, her team did many things to challenge her and go back to their underground, indirect dysfunction. Barb stuck to her commitment. When someone on her team came to talk to her about another team member, she said, “Stop. I’m not going to allow you to gossip to me. I am willing to support you having the direct conversation. Let’s call in the other person right now and work through this. Are you willing?”

Barb admitted it was hard to hold a firm line with her team and not engage. She vented with us about her own discomfort when it seemed interpersonal issues kept resurfacing. She wanted to say, “Enough! Stop your whining!” Yet, she knew it took time to change a culture. She continued to stay firm, clear, and committed to the new team norm.

Over the next year, her team transformed.

As HR, her team members became the ones taking a similar position with the business clients they were supporting. Because of this dramatic change in her team, we were also invited to work with both the executive team and other key departments.

The entire organizational culture shifted. It truly was inspiring. A great deal of that success was directly credited to Barb and her commitment to stopping the gossip!

Dealing with emotions and interpersonal style differences takes courage. Gossip and indirectness can present as a less painful way to relieve the tension, but it usually backfires. Shifting a culture of gossip takes a willingness to hang in there through the mess.

What Happened with Roger?

Roger’s horrible team meeting was actually a great first step. Mary Ann and Joe needed to be encouraged to communicate effectively. Yes, Mary Ann could use some coaching on her delivery. Joe needed some empathy and support while facing the discomfort of conflict.

But without a leader who says, “Okay, I’m uncomfortable too. Even though this isn’t perfect, things are getting said, so let’s keep going,” the trouble will only go further underground and become even more toxic.

Communication is a skill that takes practice. Most of us have acquired good-enough skills to get our point across and to understand each other unless there are high stakes, strong emotions, and different opinions. When those three conditions happen, it’s like throwing the team into the Olympics and without any training. (Just ask our resident Olympian, CrisMarie, how much she practiced!)

Teams need to prepare. In our book, The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage we give a roadmap and toolbox to prepare yourself and your team.

Know that any one team member can influence and change a team’s spiraling dysfunction. However, ultimately, it’s the leader’s job to go first, to make it okay for people to blunder, to be real, and to be vulnerable themselves.

Communication isn’t the soft stuff. It is, though, where you’ll either harness your team’s competitive advantage or not.


CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.


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