Identifying toxic communication is easy, but ending it may take more work than you think. Image credit: Frank and Helena | Getty Images December 12, 2
Identifying toxic communication is easy, but ending it may take more work than you think.
8 min read
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It’s a phenomenon that faces every business and has probably existed from the beginning of industrial time: the talks that begin as collaboration and bonding turn into criticism and personal gossip. Before long, a full-on backchannel emerges and exacts an untold cost on the company and its employees.
The Many Costs of Gossip
Many experts have attempted to measure the costs of company gossip. Wasted time is the first and obvious loss. If a team of 10 spends an average of an hour a day in the “down-low” backchannel, for example, the cost to the company is 10 times the hard cost and 10 times (or more) the opportunity costs of their time. Matters get much worse if the talk contributes to a culture of negativity, includes discussions with clients or leads to off-the-record dialogue with the company’s competitors. The reputation of the entire company can suffer. Worst case, it can result in legal liabilities that can take a company down.
Addressing Gossip Is a Challenging Wicket
However, the same hour a day of offline dialogue may be a positive investment if the focus of the chat is on mentoring, evaluating the nuances of a situation or collaborating on the routes to success. For example, I recently watched my adult son, a senior engineer, wrapping up a technology meeting. Afterward, he noted how grateful he is for the unofficial guidance he’s gotten from others. The nuances of closing the meeting with ideal follow-up and respect for the cultural differences and personalities of the various members were not an official part of anyone’s training, but have contributed greatly to his success. In this case, the offline chats to analyze the underlying dynamics of the team and its people created value for the company and all participants involved.
The experience I jokingly refer to as the “after-meeting” can be effective or toxic. As a team member, one of the greatest things an individual can accomplish in business is to guide these opportunities with skill. And in general, there are some additional things any leader should do to keep the gossip mill from derailing their business,
1. Model productive behavior yourself. As a leader at any level, it’s valuable to analyze and strategize about situations in the presence of other people you trust. “Syd looks tense. Is there anything I should be aware of before I ask him to chat?” is one constructive example. Or, “This was interesting. When that discussion turned fierce, Jennifer’s hands were clenching under the table, but Dave and Gina seemed unconcerned about the issue at all. What do you think was happening there?” Remember that as a leader, any remark you make could feel amplified to your listeners. You must be doubly careful to have these conversations face to face, wherever possible, and with the right people for the right reasons. You can’t succeed in curtailing bad actions in others if you’re guilty of the same behaviors yourself. You should also be aware of the co-leaders you trust. An individual of low EQ (Emotional Maturity Quotient) may use or twist your words and repeat them as a kind of power in front of others by claiming to be “in the know with the boss.”
2. Hire wisely. Be vigilant about assessing the EQ of candidates as well as their core abilities for the job. Hire for attitude and aptitude over skills. Notice what a person talks about in conversation. While gossip can seem funny or like a bonding experience, the time-proven maxim is true: Great people talk about ideas. Mediocre people talk about things. Small people talk about other people. The very best people will inherently guide conversations in productive directions, often without even pausing to think. The worst will thrive on the private information they share or claim to possess. For example: “Shelly Smith? Oh, I’ve really got something on her.” “What is it?” “I can’t say, but I have information about her from a reliable source that could destroy her career.” In the workplace (and elsewhere), this is the chance to follow the advice of Victor Lipman, author of The Type B Manager. If you have direct knowledge of a false rumor, speak up to contest it. If not, bring up a positive fact about the individual instead of adding on or giving energy to the gossip at hand.
“That doesn’t sound like the Shelly I know,” you might say. “In fact, I’m impressed with the new organization she’s started.” Privately, you can speak with the individual about the importance (or even the policy) of avoiding negative gossip at work.
3. Create an environment where participants feel safe addressing legitimate complaints. In many cases, the propensity to backchannel begins as a means of letting off steam or creating a kind of “buddy club” in an environment where employees don’t feel safe about addressing their worries or feel resentful of others and negatively empowered by the off-limits dialogue with friends.
4. Consistently enforce meaningful guidelines. At some levels, gossip becomes an HR or even a legal concern. The spreading of a false rumor, for example, is a form of bullying. Sharing confidential information with a competitor or leaking private client information to the press (my company is a PR agency — this can happen) could end an individual’s job on the spot or derail an entire organization. It is vital that companies address these issues not only in their employee contracts, but also in discussions about how these situations can happen and how serious the implications can be. (Interestingly, more than a few journalists have shared that their best sources of information are gossip-prone employees. Leaking bad news often feels like the ideal way to “get back at the boss.”) It is also important that leaders address infractions equally and across the board.
Examples of these principles abound in business and can be harder than you’d think to address. For example, several years ago, an agency owner faced a horrific situation when a part-time partner in the agency was exposed for a horrific breach — writing and publishing positive stories about a client under a pseudonym. It was an extreme violation, complicated even further by the fact the source he’d written about was pertinent to his side role in a political office and unrelated to the agency’s work. The story made national press.
For several days, the owner struggled with the decision of what to do. Many of the company’s 100 employees criticized him heavily for failing to eliminate the person’s job on the spot, fearing the risk to their own jobs if the situation escalated further. As he deliberated, he told his employees that before making a decision that would profoundly affect the future of the individual in question, he needed to give it the same study and consideration he’d give to any of them, regardless of the negative press. After three days of deliberation, the company and the executive parted ways. In hindsight, the employees respected and appreciated the care that had gone into the decision, and it helped to reinforce the culture of trust and respect.
Of everything I’ve learned in my own years as a leader in business, failing to deal sooner and better with the issue of gossip is one of my greatest regrets. In my earlier years, even after catching people in the act of using IM, text or personal email accounts to denigrate team members, clients and even the company itself, I tended to address it with a discussion and then let it pass. “They’re smart individuals,” I was thinking. “Now that I called them on it, they’ll learn from this experience. They will grow.” Hindsight, however, has proved they didn’t. For people with a steady gossip habit in place, the effort to stop the behavior merely fueled it more.
My effort to use the situation as a teaching moment was interpreted as a lack of ability or willingness to stop the behavior in its tracks. Eventually, the people who thrived in gossip moved on when it was clear they had no room to progress. Our company’s culture became stronger, along with our results. As people take their tendencies with them, they come to their own ends over time. Still, the time and quality of delivery lost is painful to think about. To this day, the liability risks we dodged can fill me with fear.
In all, the negativity in gossip is poisonous to a company and its culture. For individuals, it’s akin to a steady diet of toxin. It’s a habit every leader should work to eliminate in themselves and their teams. Every person and business could become immediately stronger by learning to use their offline conversations as a source of enrichment and power.