The Gossip Train is the University of Colorado Ombuds’ series of blog posts and lunch and learns on all things gossip. We will explore the origins of gossip, why we gossip, the joys and dangers of gossip, and what you can do when gossip is not helpful! This post will focus on some unpleasantness associated with gossip and how gossip can lead to and perpetuate conflict.

There are many ways in which gossip can lead to and perpetuate conflict. As Elizabeth Hill discussed in the first post in this gossip series, gossip enjoys a variety of definitions and means different things to different people. For purposes of this post, I am defining ‘gossip’ as “any talk of a person’s or institution’s affairs – whether personal or professional, innocuous, or slanderous.”

As ombuds, we hear from individuals and groups discussing a person’s or institution’s affairs daily. In other words, we hear ‘gossip.’ We listen, ask questions and help them think through the situation, explore options, and navigate next steps. 

There are many times the issue itself is a work environment or group dynamic that encourages gossip. Let me give you an example.

A number of years ago I worked with a department that was dealing with a lot of conflict. Members of the department felt the conflict was further perpetuated by gossip. As an ombuds, on the outside looking in, it did seem gossip was making the situation worse and for more reasons than they might have realized. 

The presenting issue was how staff and faculty were feeling about administrators and how administrators were feeling about faculty and staff. Faculty and staff felt administrators were making decisions that only benefited administrators, leaving faculty and staff to meet departmental goals without the necessary resources and support. Conversely, administrators felt they were trying their best but were unappreciated, mistreated, and misunderstood. 

It may not surprise you to learn, all parties spent a lot of time gossiping. And yes, everyone knew it. Faculty and staff knew the administrators were gossiping about them and vice versa. One thing they all had in common was the belief that the “other group’s” gossip was detrimental to the department’s progress and workplace culture.

It was a vicious cycle. 

From my perspective another way this caused a cycle of unproductive conflict is in the content of the gossip. It caused a divide, preventing direct and constructive discussion of the concerns. Administrators gossiped about how certain individuals only raised issues because of their ‘personalities’, which led them to dismiss the concerns. The faculty and staff gossiped about the individual administrators intentionally causing problems. This led the faculty and staff to believe administrators would never try to understand or fix any issues because of the perceived intentionality. I use this example to highlight a dark side and negative impact of gossip. The gossip proved unproductive and further damaged the department’s climate and culture. The vicious cycle continued, perpetuating the conflict. 

Stay tuned for part four of The Gossip Train series, which will reveal more of gossip’s dark side as well as how gossip can be productive and helpful. 

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver