The stories we tell shape our experiences as much and more than the experiences themselves. For anything we experience, there are a myriad of ways the story of it can be told. How the story is told illuminates a lot about us as individuals and about the culture of the organizations we work for. Many of the stories told are not done so with thoughtfulness or intentionality and this makes them very revealing for anyone paying attention and even for people not so tuned in. You want to know about a culture of an organization, pay attention to the stories told by those who work there and interact with them.
Recently I’ve been working with an organization that is struggling with morale, trust and relationships, sparked by many challenges the organization has experienced over the last few years. The topic of gossip is a central theme and it has us all curious. It is not the first time I have come across this in teams or organizations that are challenged or even labeled as dysfunctional.
There are many questions and assumptions in this group that are not unique to it. How do you know when it’s gossip? Is all gossip bad? How do we share information? How is gossip different than information sharing? It’s how we decompress. We deal with such pressing issues, it’s only natural we would gossip.
It is not “only natural” that we would gossip. There are lots of choices around how to share information and even whether to share. Gossip is a form of information sharing that goes beyond the facts and beyond the attempt to understand someone or something. It has an edge. It is often malicious. It has the potential to impact other’s reputations in destructive ways. Generally when gossip is a pattern in an organization or team individuals know they are just as likely to be gossiped about next as the current focus of the gossip. And, they do it anyway.
Gossip is one way of creating alliances. These alliances are often formed to keep others out or to target individuals in pejorative and harmful ways. It shows up in win/lose cultures and is way of trying to win – at all costs.
It is mobile as things do not remain confidential but spread rapidly. When gossip is rampant it often has truth, half truth and complete untruth in it and it is hard to distinguish which is which. It focuses on private and personal affairs, attributes, assumptions and insinuations about others. There is an energy to gossip which feels conspiratorial, sucks people in but also leaves people feeling bad about themselves – sometimes without knowing why. Sometimes it traverses into bullying.
In the organization I was working with recently, some wondered why I would focus on gossip when the pressing issues were clearly laid out in a mind map of patterns and themes distilled from employee responses to a survey. Some named leadership and accountability as the two most significant issues. I agreed. I also named gossip, role clarity, boundaries as a few others and I kept coming back to gossip, much to the disbelief of some. Patterns of gossip are also about control and power. This comes out of the formation of alliances, being able to shut people down and pushing agendas that are of interest to a few but maybe not unilaterally to everyone. If we can shift the pattern of gossip in an organization, it becomes possible to shift other patterns as well. Gossip detracts us from what more is possible. It is energy and time consuming.
As we wrapped up our day I asked two questions for the closing circle: what is your commitment to changing the conversation here and what is the intentional story you want others to know about this organization?
Some of the comments about gossip were particularly illuminating.
“I gossip when I am afraid to go to someone directly.”
“I know it’s gossip when I am eager to contribute something to the conversation.”
“I gossip when I don’t think I am as good as someone else.”
“I feel awful when I gossip. It’s yucky. I will not do it anymore.”
“I do not like the person I am when I gossip and I do not want to end my career at this organization in this way.”
A lack of respect for others, is a lack of respect for self. Our outer world is a reflection of our inner world. What we say about others says far more about us than about them.
We stop gossip when we decide to stop participating in it. When we become curious instead of playing in the judgment which characterizes so much gossip. When we become compassionate about the situation and the people involved. When we refuse to send gossip on. When we hold ourselves accountable to stop and when we hold others accountable by refusing to gossip with them, when we invite them into an inquiry about what is the purpose of the information they are sharing and are they inviting a conversation about how to strategize having conversations that matter with the people involved instead of about them.
When we stop filling the space between us with gossip we have the opportunity to fill that space with generosity, curiosity and compassion, with conversations that are meaningful and relevant and to focus on successes and the things we appreciate about each other and what we do. When we cultivate this kind of foundation, we create the base from which to have the conversations we’ve been avoiding through gossip – conversations about leadership, accountability and the deep purpose of the work we are in.
Gossip is only helpful in seeing culture and identifying challenges. It is not conducive to healthy workplaces or healthy relationships. When we replace gossip with intentional, appreciative conversations, we begin to create the conditions for more of what is possible, more of how we can serve the needs we have identified and a bonus is that we feel better about who we are and what we do. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the best of ways.