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Workplace Gossip : Hot or Toxic?

You’re working away at your desk.  Your colleague slides over with a “guess what I’ve just heard?”.  You look enquiringly at them.  They launch into a tasty bit of workplace gossip about another colleague.

It’s not pleasant.  It’s not kind. It’s targeted.

Let’s pause here.  What’s going on?

What’s motivating the person to share this gossip?

Scenario One.  It could just be workplace gossip.  The stuff that we engage in daily.  Sometimes seen as low-level and harmless (unless you’re the target).  Not healthy, not great, left unchecked can become the unhealthy DNA of a team or workplace (I once worked with a team who made a team commitment that they would not gossip, it broke the pattern)

Scenario Two.  We have an under the radar, covert, bully doing their thing.  Whispering poison into the ears of anyone who will listen about another person.

Scenario Two type people come in many guises.  Quiet.  Charming.  Manipulative.  Passive aggressive.    They’ll drop the morsel of intel, then back away from it with a disclaimer “probably shouldn’t be saying this…. probably got it wrong “.  Bottom line is they’re engaging in a whispering campaign against a target in their sights.

What’s their goal?

To mobilise others to their side of the table.  To slowly, and covertly, turn people against their target.  A slow rolling boil towards mobbing behaviours.  Ignoring, isolating, side-lining, mirroring the whispering and gossip.

Covert bullies operate under the radar.  Subtle.  Undermining.  Quiet sniper attacks.  Malicious rumours.  Derogatory comments.  Nit picking everything.  Never anything good to say about their target.  They are all about isolating the target.  Eroding their confidence and self-esteem.  If you challenge a covert bully, they’ll likely explain away their behaviour with “I’m just trying to be helpful”.  They’re not.  They are seeking to negatively impact their target.

Why do bullies, covert and overt, do this?  Dig deep enough, they don’t feel good about themselves.  Their behaviours are a mirror of how they feel about themselves.  They get a kick out of pulling down another person, it helps them to feel better about themselves. It gives them a sense of power, dominance, and control.  I once asked a bully “why do you do this baiting and sniping?”, they said, with a smile, “I like to see what response I can get”.  It was a game to them.

At some level the workplace bully is threatened by the target.  The target may have good technical skills, easily build strong relationships, be known as a good performer.  They may be new to the team and getting attention, taking the light from the bully.  Bullies don’t like people stepping into their light.

Circuit Break the behaviour

Next time you have someone spreading workplace gossip.  Pause.  Ask yourself “what’s their motivation here?  What’s their agenda?”.

Circuit break the behaviour by asking “I’m curious, why are you telling me this?”.  If you’re brave enough amplify your disapproval with “I’ve noticed you previously talking about xxxx this way, why?”.  In that moment you have signalled that you have spotted the behaviour, and you’re not fuelling it.  The bully will likely pull away or attempt to explain their ‘why’.  They are unlikely to try it again with you, though they’ll move onto somebody else.

When I come across this toxic gossip I often pull up Socrates Triple Filter Test

  • Is it true?
  • Is it good?
  • Is it useful?

“If no, to all three, why are you telling me?”

Using this filter teaches us not to pay attention to rumours, untrue, hurtful, and useless information, and gossip.

If you’re a leader, be cautious about the person whispering the gossip, even where it seems trivial and inconsequential.  Be more cautious if this person has buddied up to you, positioning themselves as your ‘trusted advisor’.  There is a reason why they are dripping the poison and they may be the reason why people have left your team.

We have a range of programs aimed at spotting and stopping workplace bullying.  Reach out for a chat.

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