The Gossip Train: How Gossip Can Help Ombuds Work

The Gossip Train is Ombuzz’s series of blog posts 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!

As we write this gossip series, I have been thinking about the relationship between gossip and my ombuds work. It has made me realize some of my most impactful work has been the result of gossip. 

Here is an example (I changed the names to maintain confidentiality): 

I worked with a smaller department that relied on team collaboration. One day, one of the team members, Mary, decided to share her experience with another team member, Marcus. Mary felt her manager was dismissive of her during team meetings. The manager seemed to play favorites by letting certain team members lead projects, share during team meetings, and receive promotions. Mary had been on the team longer than the “favorites” and was passed over for the “good” projects, had not received a promotion, and was regularly interrupted in team meetings. 

Marcus was relieved to hear this. He thought he was the only one feeling this way. 

Jesse, who works on another team, with a different manager, walked into the break room while Mary and Marcus were talking and joined the conversation. Jesse expressed sympathy for what they were going through. 

A few days later, Brenda, one of the “perceived favorites” approached Mary and told Mary she didn’t think the manager was being fair. Even though Brenda led a few great projects, she too felt people were treated differently and didn’t like it. 

It took less than a week for Mary’s entire team, as well as the other teams in the department, to discuss these dynamics with each other. The gossip spread far and fast. 

One day, one of the team members decided to speak with me in the Ombuds Office, hoping I could help. I encouraged this person to suggest their peers meet with me as well to see how others were experiencing the team dynamics. One of my responsibilities as an ombuds is to share themes, issues, and concerns with the appropriate person in the organization. 

Over the course of three weeks, I spoke with nine different people about this issue. This provided plenty of information for me to request a meeting with the manager to share what I was hearing. As you may know, the Ombuds Office is confidential and we do not share any identifiable information without explicit permission. In cases when there is a group raising concerns about the same situation or person, we can share themes without attribution. 

I met with the manager and shared her team’s concerns. The manager was surprised and upset to hear this. We worked together to devise a plan to address the concerns and improve the team’s experience. 

After implementing the changes, the next step was for the manager to monitor the group and see if it made a difference. Gossip came in handy here as well. As team members noticed changes in the manager’s behavior, they shared that with others, who shared it with others, who shared it with me and the manager. That indicated to me and the manager what was working well, what to continue, and what to reevaluate. 

Eventually, I met with the entire team to facilitate discussions and establish ways they could work together more effectively and create a climate where everyone was felt comfortable directly addressing group norms

The gossip helped in three ways: 

  1. It validated people’s concerns that what was going on was not okay, and wasn’t only one person’s perception
  2. It spread the word that maybe the Ombuds Office could help
  3. It allowed the entire team to participate in the resolution

In this case, the team members and the manager were all interested in improving their work culture. The process allowed everyone the opportunity to change behaviors, observe changes in other people’s behaviors and collectively design their new environment. 

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver

Related links:

Recording of the September 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: What is Gossip and Why do we do it?“.
Recording of the November 2022 lunch and learn, “The Gossip Train: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Gossip Train: What Exactly is Gossip?
The Gossip Train: Why do We Gossip?

The Gossip Train: A Vicious Cycle
The Gossip Train: The Dark Side

The Gossip Train: Hidden Virtues

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