Turn Gossip Into a Productivity Booster

Gossip is unavoidable, especially in the workplace. Regardless of a company’s culture, it will appear in one form or another.

The trick is to turn gossip into something productive, according to Beverly Flaxington, a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst, hypnotherapist and author of Understanding Other People. Talent Management spoke with Flaxington on the topic. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

How do you define gossip?
Gossip is when you have people talking about something, and the truth of the matter is it’s either hurtful to the person that’s not there to hear it or it’s information that someone else really should have in order to act on it. So it’s like information that’s getting delivered to the wrong person.

How do you turn gossip into productive communication?
I am a firm believer when it comes to management that what you don’t know actually can hurt you, and that there is a lot to be said for trying to get your employees to share with you the things that they may be sharing with one another.

So as a manager, as a leader, if I’ve got people who are, for example, talking about a co-worker in a negative sense, and they may be getting to the point where they all dislike this person, they won’t work with this person, that’s going to hurt me. If I’ve got people complaining about something the company is doing or speculating these are all things that, if I don’t know about them, can hurt me.

So what I want to be able to do is bring these issues into the light. Of course, gossip lives because people like to do it behind closed doors — they don’t want to share these things and it feeds on itself. So it is incumbent on the manager or the leader or the boss to periodically hold sessions where they are giving a forum to employees to be able to actually bring up what I call obstacles to success … And you can have one-to-one conversations with people in advance to get them to elicit some of this. You can do it in a group setting. You can do it via some kind of suggestion box. But what you’re trying to get them to do is instead of sharing these issues with one another to actually start to share it with you.

Are there rules for when managers use this approach?
One I call the ground rule, which is: We absolutely are going to have issues with one another; we’re going to have frustrations with one another. But we have a culture whereby if you come in and you tell me about a problem you’re having with a co-worker, my next step then is to try to get that third party engaged to figure out how can we resolve this.

Instead of you coming to me, you talk to me about someone, I turn around, I talk to someone else about that person, and we get a whole story going about what’s happening with our colleague, I listen to you, but then my next step is to actually get that person engaged in our conversation.

You and I may take a little bit of time to problem solve, to brainstorm, to role play how you want to talk to that person. But you’re starting to set up a ground rule that instead of us being able to talk about people who aren’t there and can’t resolve anything for us, if they aren’t there we have a culture where we move to where we want to be able to work together effectively. So we’re a problem-solving kind of culture.

How can managers encourage employees to go to their leaders with gossip?
I do believe that the manager has to walk the walk. They’ve got to show that there is not a penalty to pay, that in fact they are open to hearing about these issues, but that what they want to do is work with their staff to fix it.

So I want to be clear that this is a fine line. This is not management saying: Give us all your troubles and we’ll take care of everything. This is management saying: Help us understand what’s in the way, and then let us help you. How do we all problem solve together? How do we come up with different ways to overcome these obstacles, or work together more effectively, or understand something about staff members?

How is time-wasting, negative gossip different from productive gossip?
We’ve got certain categories of obstacles. There are things we can control, there are things we can influence and there are things that are just simply out of our control. … We tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on those things we cannot control. We complain about the competitive environment and about the culture of the company, about certain people who are in leadership, etc. … What that’s doing is really stealing time from what we could be focusing on — something that we can control, that we can influence, where we can make a difference. So it’s trading off, it’s being willing to say: OK, let me categorize this. These are certain things that right now I can’t do anything about. Let me turn my attention to something that I can spend my energy on, that I can spend my time on. It’s subtle, but it’s really significant.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@talentmgt.com.