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Avoiding the Gossip Trap at Work

Toxic atmospheres
Company Culture

28 October, 2020

Colleen Tartow, Ph.D., Director of Engineering at Starburst Data, explains the detriments of unprofessional interactions via gossip at work and shares a simple rule that helps her avoid “the gossip trap."

Problem

I enjoy being friends with my co-workers -- after all, we are spending roughly half of our waking lives working together. I enjoy having a friendly relationship with my colleagues. But there should always be a line between professional friendliness and unprofessional and negative gossiping. While gossip in a private context can be amusing as long as it’s not malicious and hurtful to other people, it has no place in a work-related context. As a leader, I make an additional, conscious effort not to get caught in the gossip trap.
 

Actions taken

I adhere to a very simple rule -- I don’t say anything behind someone’s back that I wouldn’t want them to hear. Being an effective and trusted leader is incompatible with gossip - it should be rooted in transparency and honesty.
 

The remote situation that we are going through now is making avoiding gossip even more difficult. The casual nature of conversations in platforms like Slack makes it easy to hit the send button without thinking twice. All you need to do is to send a message to the wrong person or wrong channel and the gossip can start. The same happens when people mistakenly click Reply All instead of Reply or Forward. Rather than have to think it through and double-check it every single time it is easier to stick to a rule that would prevent gossip from ever happening in the first place.
 

With people who are working for you, you always need to have a professional relationship and shouldn’t allow yourself to gossip about other people with them. In fact, while I treat my one-on-ones with my direct reports as a confessional (what’s said in that meeting stays in that meeting), and they are encouraged to be honest and free in their opinions and speech, I do discourage idle gossip.
 

Decisions to avoid gossip are both personal and cultural. I personally have always sought to work in companies that cherished transparency and had zero tolerance for gossip culture. However, the relationship between transparency and gossip is far more complex. I’ve seen companies that valued transparency but let gossip sneak in and even flourish. This is a result of a perplexing dichotomy of the engineering organizations that marries a casual approach to work and the professionalism of the highest standards. My personal contribution to building transparency in my organization and to allow people to trust me as a leader is to not to engage in gossip at the workplace.
 

When people gossip to you, you can always distance yourself by setting the tone of professionalism. While embracing transparency is a must, I believe that the most convincing way to abstain from gossiping is to practice what you preach. Leaders who allow themselves to gossip with people who work with them can be viewed as immature and unprofessional. Try to be more honest and empathic, and have a more genuine understanding of why people are doing what they are doing. At the end of the day, gossip is rooted in being judgemental, whereas transparency is aligned with honesty, a valuable characteristic in any leader.
 

Lessons learned

  • Embrace transparency and keep conversation professional with coworkers, particularly direct reports.
  • When you witness or learn about gossip or rumors, you should nip it in the bud. This behavior has detrimental effects which can affect productivity --- they can distract people, create factions, reduce work output, etc.
  • While it’s great to be friendly with the people you work with, remember that as a leader you should remain professional.

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