The Gossip Train: What if the Office is Talking About You?

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!

We’re not new to people talking about us – think back as far as even elementary school and you probably remember getting intel on yourself. We most likely engaged in this practice as well, sharing secrets and observations about our classmates. Now that we’re adults, what’s changed? Not much. Our need to connect through gossip is human nature – having connection with others binds us. As we learned earlier in the Gossip Train series, there are positives to gossiping. For one, gossiping helps maintain the social glue of a group, helps keep order and expectations for social norms, and tells us who we can and cannot trust. We also learned the more nefarious implications of gossip through the series such as, low trust, low morale, and decreased productivity, to name a few.  

So, what to do when the gossip is about you? The advice of most office relationship experts is to first and foremost approach the situation with curiosity and humility. The goal is to practice healthy accountability rather than punish or embarrass. Joseph Grenny, Social Scientist, Co-founder of Crucial Learning, and author of Crucial Conversations, addresses this in his article “How to Handle Office Gossip…When it’s About You,“ as well as on Crucial Learning videos called, “How do I Say That?”. 

When approached by someone who wants to share dirt they heard about him, Grenny sets the tone upfront. He tells the person: “Please don’t put anything in my head that you don’t want me to use in a healthy way. If you’re not willing to be accountable for what you’re about to tell me then don’t tell me.” This strategy helps avoid getting on the gossip train and teaches people their words and actions matter. Should the person continue and share what is being said about him, Grenny then goes to the source. In a curious and humble manner, he states what he heard and from whom. As he shares this information, he centers himself first on the content of the feedback, not how it got to him. 

Here’s an example. Let’s say through gossip you learn your colleague was disappointed in your presentation. The essence of the feedback can still be helpful. Approaches might include, “Hey, I understand you think I could have done better with my presentation this week.” This could summon many possible responses, from downplaying it to outright denying it. If the gossiper downplays, assure them you value feedback. Aim to understand their perspective and concerns. You’re teaching them you can handle feedback in a non-defensive way. Once you feel you understand the feedback, invite them to share directly with you in the future. It might sound like, “I really value getting feedback like this; can we agree that in the future we will come to each other directly to share?” 

A reminder of HOW you do this – if you ask for their perspective you cannot get defensive when they provide it. If you do, they’ll most likely not feel safe sharing much of anything with you and will continue to ride the gossip train. If the gossiper denies ever stating anything remotely close to what you’re sharing, Grenny encourages getting everyone together to clear up any confusion. Something like, “Ok, that’s different from what I heard; maybe the three of us can get together to discuss?”      

As with all skills related to Crucial Conversations, it’s our approach and motive that are more important than the words we are saying. Demonstrating accountability rather than punishment teaches others they don’t need to gossip.  

By: Lisa Neale, Ombuds at University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz

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
The Gossip Train: How Gossip Can Help Ombuds Work
The Gossip Train: Tips for Mitigating Harmful Gossip

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