Recently a group of archaeologists in Egypt discovered a pile of small stones with ancient writing on them. They seemed to be 5,000 years old and were used as a method of communication. One person would write something on a stone then give it to a runner who would take it to someone else. That person would write something in reply and then send it back. It was like a slow version of texting.
When they finally deciphered their first stone, here’s what it said: “I think Ramses is sleeping with Isis.”
Yup, gossip has been with us since the dawn of civilization.
We gossip for many reasons, but mainly we do it as a way of bonding with others. Sharing stories about friends and colleagues is a way of connecting and fitting in. But as you know, it’s also a quick way of destroying relationships. All of us have been victims. For me, I was devastated by a nasty rumor spread by one of my employees. It took seconds to start, but years to undo.
The extraordinary thing is that those who regularly do it often don’t even consider themselves “gossipers”. They may fool themselves into thinking they are being caring or sympathetic. Like any conversation starting with: “Oh, did you hear the horrible thing that happened to…” Or they feel they are taking some moral high ground with: “I’m so discussed by what I just learned about…” And, if you them they were gossiping, they would look at you funny (then gossip about you when you leave).
Gossip can also be a way of controlling the social structure of the office. It helps determine who’s “in” and who’s “out”. If you are in, you’re hearing the dirt. If you’re out, you are the dirt. Bosses are usually out. There are many reasons why, but most often it’s the need of an employee to feel superior.
If unchecked, office gossip often can get out of control. To keep things from becoming toxic, an organization needs to do the following:
- Model good behavior. Don’t expect people to stop gossiping if the leaders are doing it.
- Set policy. Put it in writing and make sure everyone understands what will happen if they gossip.
- Enforce the policy. Give warnings and then move to progressive discipline, which may lead to firing.
Lastly, don’t expect your non-gossiping employees to confront those who are gossiping. That’s setting them up to possibly be ostracized and becoming a target themselves.
Gossip has been with us for while and is not going away. But, you can learn from what Socrates said 2,500 years ago when he himself must have been dealing with it: “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
What ideas do you have to deal with gossip?