“Have you heard about Dave and Jan in Accounts? Don’t tell anyone, but the rumor is they’re having an affair.”
“Oooh, well, I heard that Jan is a bit of a drinker, so it doesn’t surprise me. I mean, did you see her at the last office party…?”
The scene may be familiar: Two people huddled by the water-cooler, talking in hushed voices, exchanging predominantly negative information in a way that they would never openly share with their hapless protagonists, Dave and Jan.
So, what just happened?
Well, aside from the character assassinations of poor Dave and Jan, what happened appears to be a very old and very human activity, and one which almost certainly pre-dates water-coolers.
“Gossip seems ever more anachronistic, a bit like communication’s version of the human appendix: Seemingly redundant, and potentially highly toxic under the wrong conditions.”
We’ve discussed the vital role of trust in organizations before, so we won’t go into it again here. In “The Happiness Hypothesis” however, Jonathan Haidt explores the role of gossip in establishing trust relationships between individuals within a group or organization. The act of sharing this kind of information is a way of building a connection, and the fact that it is high value information makes it even more effective (in our example, high value because it’s related to the apparent trustworthiness of others in the organization.)
On the surface our two gossipers therefore appear to be both strengthening their own trust relationship with each other while simultaneously weakening trust in our protagonists, Dave and Jan. Cunning, eh?
Haidt argues that there might be value in this from a social-evolutionary perspective as human tribes grew beyond the size in which everyone knew each other intimately (which is around 150 people according to Dunbar’s Number, described by British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”). We humans basically had to figure out a way of communicating the trustworthiness of others in the group that might not be known to us directly. Haidt suggests gossip was evolution’s answer to that problem.
Knowing that, for example, Dave doesn’t pull his weight on a hunt, or Jan seems to eat more berries than she brings back for the rest of us, might be useful information for our ancestors if they ever found themselves picking new people to go hunting or gathering with. But as society and culture has evolved, gossip seems ever more anachronistic, a bit like communication’s version of the human appendix: Seemingly redundant, and potentially highly toxic under the wrong conditions. At the very least, gossip is a symptom of a low trust culture – essentially building a series of two-person trust relationships that are largely bound together by the threat of disclosure – and worse may be implicated in perpetuating that culture, as members of the group happily go from water cooler to water cooler stabbing each other in the proverbial back.
“What are the ten things I might actually be communicating to you as we grab a glass of cool water, beyond my judgement of Dave and Jan?”
Reading between the lines
What might this situation then, and the many similar ones happening right now all over the world at water coolers, over garden fences, at the school gate, and so on, tell us about the gossipers themselves?
Let’s pretend that it’s you and I at our hypothetical watercooler, and I’ve initiated the conversation. What are the ten things I might actually be communicating to you as we grab a glass of cool water, beyond my judgement of Dave and Jan?
- I want to be part of ‘the group’: Gossiping is a way of showing that I am an engaged member of the group and that, in my own misguided way, I care enough to share information about other members that I think may be relevant. If I’m new to the team or company, maybe this is my way to try and ingratiate myself?
- I trust you: If I share my gossip with you, I trust that you won’t go straight to Dave or Jan and tell them what I’ve just said or use the information against me in some other way.
- I want you to trust me: Gossip is almost always a reciprocal act, and by sharing my information I’m inviting you to share yours. If you do, we become accomplices in this act of character assasination (which, as suggested above, is about the lowest form of trust because it’s based on a mutual threat or fear of disclosure).
- I am attempting to influence your opinion: By sharing negative information about Dave and Jan, perhaps I am attempting to influence or control how you feel about them. Maybe Dave upset me in some way, so I am intentionally trying to lower his status in the group as a form of revenge. Whatever the driver, since Dave isn’t there to defend himself, I get to paint the picture of my own distorted reality.
- I am attempting to elevate my own position: Let’s assume I have a vested interest in all of this. For example, perhaps I actually want Dave or Jan’s job? Or I heard there was a promotion coming up and I’m jostling for position. This “I win – they lose” mindset is another hallmark of a low-trust organization.
- I am attempting to elevate our position: Perhaps we are part of a parallel team or function, and by degrading Dave and Jan, I might be saying that I think we’re better by comparison. Just like the husband and wife that observe the habits of another couple at a dinner party (“Did you notice how Dave kept interrupting Jan at dinner?”), it might be our way of making ourselves feel superior.
- I am feeling threatened or insecure: Perhaps it’s not a promotion, but looming layoffs that are motivating my desire to influence the opinions of others. My drive to erode the status of Dave and Jan may be based on fear that I’m in the firing line, and so I’m pre-emptively attempting to throw them under the bus.
- I am avoiding conflict: If I have a legitimate personal or professional concern about Dave or Jan, and I was in a high-trust environment, I would share my concerns with them directly, without judgement. My gossiping here may be my way of trying to clear my concerns without addressing them head on – a kind of catharsis. The problem with this approach of course, is that the source of the concern will remain, so nothing has really been resolved by this.
- I am testing your opinion: Maybe I want to see what you think because actually I’m having an affair too, or – maybe I’m even exploring how open you’d be to having an affair with me?!
- I am trying to trade up my information: By sharing my information with you, and inviting you to share yours, I might be trying to trade up in the hope you’ve got something better I can then use in my next water-cooler encounter. In our example, I now know something about Jan that I didn’t before. Perhaps I plan to use that to trade with someone else to get even more information, and if I keep this going, eventually I will get to something really useful / pertinent to the execution of my secret Machiavellian plan!
As you reflect on that list, consider the extent to which gossiping really is an act of trust then? On the surface, it might seem like we’re strengthening our relationship, but in many of the examples listed above that seems pretty tenuous, and very much depends on the motives we each have for engaging in the act. And whatever our personal motives, it’s always eroding trust at the group or organization level.
“How much is this a survival instinct triggered by the environment you’re in?”
Breaking the Cycle
First, let’s all be honest with ourselves: Gossiping is a very human act, and it appears to be in our genes. We all do it.
That doesn’t make it a good thing however; so, next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re about to engage in the act, get curious.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, you should work to understand your own motives and drivers (This can be tough to do on your own, so would be an ideal opportunity to work with a coach – someone that will not judge you but will instead help to understand what’s really going on for you in these situations. You might also find this post helpful). Ask yourself:
- What does this really tell you about yourself? Your state of mind? Your aims or objectives? What do you hope to gain or avoid losing?
- How does this really align to your own values? Are you being authentic to who you are or want to be?
- How comfortable would you be to say this, in the same way, directly to the person / people concerned? How would you feel if they overheard? Or, if your co-conspirator shared what you said with them?
- When / where does it happen most often? What might that tell you about that context and how you feel when you’re in it? Could this be a survival instinct triggered by the environment you’re in?
Once you gain some awareness as to when, where and why it’s happening, you can then be at choice about how to proceed. You could of course go right ahead and engage as perhaps you’ve always done. But if you now choose to try and break the cycle, here are some tactics to consider:
- Avoidance: If you find yourself gossiping in particular situations or with particular people, you could simply avoid them. Not an ideal long term strategy, but a start.
- Mix it up: If you can’t avoid the situation, try changing some aspect of the dynamic, such as always ensuring there’s a third person there, which reduces the likelihood that you will be drawn in.
- Don’t initiate: If you feel the urge to share first, don’t! Just use the urge as a way to explore the trigger behind it, referring back to our questions above.
- Don’t engage: If someone else initiates, then you have the option to not reciprocate. Change the subject, for example, or make your excuses and leave. Keep in mind that this breaks the gossiper’s social contract, so there may be some repercussions if you’re suddenly changing your behavior. Ideally, you’d be comfortable to share the fact that you’d rather not spread rumors, but this may not be easy until the culture catches up with your shift in attitude.
- Flip It: Another way to respond might be to share positive information instead. For example, “Yeah, but did you hear that Jan just hit a home run on that project she’s leading. She must be doing something right over there!” – that breaks the cycle of negativity, and invites the other person to join you above the line.
- Go Direct: If you have legitimate personal or professional concern, you should clear it with the individual(s) directly. If you’re uncomfortable going direct, work through your manager or HR team. Direct, clear communication without judgement will always be a better option. Stick to the facts, and separate them from the, often highly elaborated, story.
- Lead: If you’re a manager or a leader, you have the ability to influence the culture of your team or organization. Model open and transparent communication as the antidote to gossip, and don’t tolerate it when you see it happening. Hopefully you’ve read enough to believe that this is toxic to your culture and has to stop.
“Pay attention to what’s really being communicated, not just what’s being said.”
Hopefully you’re convinced that there is no such thing as “idle gossip” now. There will be a motive, whether conscious or unconscious. Pay attention to what’s really being communicated, not just what’s being said. You’ll be amazed what you learn about yourself and your environment, and it’ll be way more interesting than whatever Dave and Jan are getting up to.
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