Gossip and Culture: Death by a Thousand Whispers

An engaged workforce will produce more profits than a disengaged one, a lot more.  The Gallup organization has been saying it for years.  Companies write engagement into their value systems, build it into their performance goals, test for it, survey for it and educate for it. All that effort to create healthy environments yet engagement scores in North America are languishing in the low to mid 30’s. We have a systemic problem with employee engagement, and that stifles innovation, joy and profits all at once.

At Carpedia we observe employee engagement all the time, and we get a unique view of it given that the majority of our time with our clients is spent with front-line managers.  When we see genuine engagement, we often marvel at the “feel” of an engaged workforce.  A walk-through the factory or the office gives off a “feel” that disengaged workplaces just don’t. It’s a place you want to be. It’s a place that people feel comfortable, and it’s a place where employees can rally around a common purpose. It’s purposeful and confident, without the distracting whispers of gossip.  It’s a place that is underpinned by trust.

As practical operating people, we see many systemic causes for good engagement and employee trust and we see the opposite.  What doesn’t seem to change is that employee engagement is always under attack. One of the most consistent weapons against engagement is gossip; a culture and trust killer.

Its in Our Genes

Gossip is thought to have been developed in our evolutionary past and certainly is alive and well in our political institutions, media etc.  The common belief is that we need gossip to understand and navigate our environment to safeguard our DNA. The better we can manipulate, hold back and subordinate our adversaries, the more likely we will survive to produce another day. Like moths to the flame, it is tough to ignore a ripe opportunity to elevate our own status by undermining a “competitor” that isn’t present to defend themselves. While our wiring may have us believe gossip safeguards our DNA, it is also true that gossip will destroy company culture, performance and employee engagement.

Why Gossip Is Toxic

In an office environment, an up-and-coming employee suggested to her manager that two of her colleagues “disliked one another.” It seemed rather benign at the time, but gossip tends to ripen over time, and ultimately sows doubt and distrust in the mind of the manager:

  1. Eventually the manager comes to appreciate that the person who did the gossiping must have had conversations with at least one of the colleagues about the other, which means that the environment is perhaps a little more toxic than once thought. They aren’t a team, and that is troubling.
  2. The gossip undermines the two subjects of the gossip, and in turn elevates the gossiper. There is an implication that she does not have similar issues with her work relationships.
  3. If the boss proves to be a gossip sponge, then the gossiper is positioned well as the go-to person for inside information. The well is primed for more.

The last point above is likely where gossip metastasizes in an organization. Once a manager has taken the bait and does nothing, the entire sub-culture that surrounds that manager darkens with the clouds of distrust.  An engaged employee is engaged precisely because trust exists.  Take that away and there isn’t much to look forward to. Once an employee is subject to gossip, they will quickly succumb to the state of disengagement. It’s how gossip kills culture, and it is how gossip kills employee engagement.

What can you do about it?

If you are a manager, you need to take responsibility for your culture or sub-culture.  You own one of them, which means that you must model it. You go first.

  1. Set the expectation for what behaviors meet the culture that you represent. With regard to gossip, let it be known that it is not an acceptable behavior.
  2. Set the example and refrain from gossip of any sort. Just don’t do it.
  3. Listen for the behavior. Gossip can be obvious and it can be subtle.  It can come at you head on or take the form of leading questions.  Perhaps questions that suggest information without saying it, designed to draw you into a discussion about someone else’s business.  Remember that we are coded to participate in gossip, so it takes some practice to hear it, isolate it and avoid it.
  4. Confront the behavior. Every time gossip can be identified it should be confronted, and it should confronted at the time of the indiscretion.

Businesses have one desired culture and a multitude of subcultures, each framed by a manager or the leaders in an organization. Gruenert and Whitaker put this simply: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” Find the gossip and root it out. You may find yourself walking through your building, factory, site or wherever your front-line exists and experiencing an environment of trust, the place that whispers go to die.