How to Use Gossip as a Catalyst for Positive Change

Gossip is everywhere. In fact, research shows that 65% of people’s conversations could be defined as gossip. Dunbar, R. Human Nature (1997). That includes negative, neutral, and positive gossip. In The Gossip Train, Ombuzz authors talked about the complexities of gossip: What is it? Why do we do it? Its dark side and negative consequences. Its hidden virtues.

Recently at the Kennesaw Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, we spent three hours with about a dozen organizational ombuds discussing how they might use gossip as a catalyst for positive change. Perhaps you will find ways to effectively use these concepts to influence changes among your communities, teams, friend groups, and more.

Let us boil it down. There are three components to using gossip as a catalyst for positive change:

  1. Data gathering
  2. Creating a felt need
  3. Positive reinforcement

Let’s say you are noticing gossip spreading throughout your team. People are starting to hold inaccurate beliefs about why certain financial decisions are made or why one person got a promotion and another didn’t. The first component is to gather more data. What else are folks saying? Where do these beliefs come from? Take some time to gather more information without correcting others or becoming defensive. Simply gather data. Then strategically use that information.

Part of being strategic involves creating a felt need. People don’t change unless they feel there is a need to do so. Let’s say you want to shift the team culture to one in which people feel safe to raise difficult issues and questions directly, rather than create and engage in negative gossip. Accordingly, the second component is to help your team feel the need for that change. Find out what is important to them, what kind of culture do they want, and jointly make commitments to shift it.

The third component is incredibly important. All team members agree to make certain changes. For instance, your team decides to designate time in each meeting for feedback and questions. Or perhaps you all agree to ask one curious question before responding to a piece of feedback, etc.) The key is reinforcement. Without it, the changes may not stick. This may be due in part to attribution theory, which explains we only see the behaviors we expect to see based on our assumptions and biases. Noticing new, changed behaviors, requires intention and attention. It also helps to name the changed behavior. Create a structure and process to publicly recognize people successfully engaging in the new, agreed upon behaviors.

Here are some ideas:

  • Shout outs! During weekly team meetings team members identify at least three changes made and noticed. If there aren’t three, the team agrees to visit with the ombuds again to determine whether the changes aren’t happening, or if folks aren’t noticing them.
  • Catch ‘em in the act! Team members acknowledge behavioral changes in real time.
  • Start at the top. Leaders encourage changes amongst themselves. For instance, they discuss how they can share information to increase transparency or make sure they ask new team members to join them for lunch or happy hour each time there is a social engagement.
  • Nip it in the bud. If anyone hears negative gossip, they will respond with:
    • Thanks for sharing your concern. Have you spoken directly to them about this? Or how can we raise this directly?
  • Regroup as needed. If there are questions or concerns, team members may check in with ombuds.

Now consider your own situation(s). Next time you hear gossip that is having a negative impact, how might you gather additional data, create a felt need among those who can foster change, and use positive gossip to turn things around?

We would love to hear your stories and questions. Feel free to leave your comments.

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds at Pinterest and Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office

Additional posts related The Gossip Train blog series:
A Vicious Cycle
How Gossip Can Help Ombuds Work
Tips for Mitigating Harmful Office Gossip
What if the Office is talking About You?
Is it Time for a No-Gossip Policy?

2 thoughts on “How to Use Gossip as a Catalyst for Positive Change”

  1. These are great insights, Teresa. the components you mention are great ways to create dialogue. My favorite point is “about nipping it in the bud” and asking the person who might be going to you with negative gossip to talk to the individual they are gossiping about rather than agree, lecture, or walk away. It is a great non-triangulation technique that creates traction toward making something better.


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