I am an EVP for a major insurance company where I have been leading a large team for five years. I was just getting the hang of things when COVID hit, and since then it has been a mad scramble to keep up with all of the changes. I have a hybrid workforce now, with over 50% of our employees working from home most of the time. Our CEO resigned and we have an almost completely new executive team.
We are just now getting back on an even keel, but I’ve noticed something unpleasant happening. I am lucky to have relationships all over the company so I hear things through the grapevine—and I’ve been hearing weird gossip and crazy rumors.
One rumor was that we are selling an entire section of the company. Another whopper was that I am planning to leave. None of it is true—but what is true is that my people are on edge and the gossip mill isn’t helping.
How can I stop this nonsense?
Dear Hate Gossip,
So do I—unless I am the one doing it. It’s so much fun to gossip! I spent a full year a long time ago abiding by a “no gossip ever” rule and it was excruciatingly difficult. I defined gossip as talking about anyone who wasn’t in the room, or repeating news that I wasn’t 100% sure was true. In an organizational setting it wasn’t sustainable, but my experiment certainly shed some light on where the fine lines are.
Gossip itself isn’t all bad, all the time. It’s the way humans seek to understand the world—what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior in the shared culture. Anyone who is the parent of a middle or high schooler can see budding gossips at work as their kids seek to get their arms around the unspoken rules.
Evolutionarily, gossip is a survival mechanism—a way for us to manage uncertainty and plan how to navigate our own path. Gossip is the way to spread information (and, of course, misinformation) across large social networks. And it is one of the ways we create relationships and connections—bond with others. Our brains absolutely love gossip because it releases little bursts of dopamine that hit the reward center just like chocolate, shopping, alcohol, and drugs—in short, gossip can become addictive.
Humans tend to share information that provokes strong feelings, even if we’re not sure it’s true. It’s fun and entertaining to provoke strong feelings in others and it deepens relationships. In fact, just receiving gossip can make us feel like we’re part of the “in group.” It’s simply the way we’re wired. So shutting down all gossip is probably an unachievable goal.
But here’s what you can do: you can tackle the situation head on. Tell your team it has come to your attention that some people, both inside and outside of the team, are spreading rumors that are not true—and that this is triggering negative feelings for no reason and causing enormous distraction and damage. Then make a clear request, something like:
“When you hear something, please…
- Notice how it makes you feel.
- Check it out with someone who knows the truth. Feel free to start with me. If I don’t know, I will try to find out.
- Don’t spread information that you are not 100% certain is true.
- Be a force for bringing us together, not creating division.”
Then, when someone does come to you, thank them for checking it out with you. Don’t shoot the messenger!
You could also make a commitment to being a role model by noticing how and when you engage in gossip yourself. You may be inadvertently condoning gossip by sharing questionable info with your own team members or peers without even realizing it—after all, you’re only human.
Finally, gossip (especially the whopping, tall-tale type) tends to increase when people are stressed by extreme and rapid change. So you can probably take it all with a grain of salt knowing that it will subside. Your being a role model for telling the truth and holding a safe place for people to share their fears will help them feel more settled and focused on what matters most.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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