Just the word “gossip” sets my teeth on edge. It brings back memories of middle school, where gossip was currency and weapon and social glue embodied in a language I didn’t understand, just as I didn’t understand which kind of Guess jeans or Swatch watch was the right kind. I always had the wrong kind. It was as if middle school was a separate country, and I was definitely a foreigner. In this other land gossip was the lingua franca, the way people connected, fought, and understood their place in the world. The problem with gossip back then, and now in the workplace, isn’t necessarily the underlying social purpose of gossip, but the unintended consequences.
Do we gossip at work? Certainly. I hope we are kinder and more subtle now than we were at age 12, but we do it still. Every time we start a sentence with “did you hear…?” we are probably gossiping. Merriam Webster defines gossip as “rumor or report of an intimate nature” or “chatty talk.” It is this second description that we engage in most at work, and that serves a real work purpose: to connect us to each other in personal, meaningful ways. Merriam Webster goes on to say that the word comes from the ancient word godsib (a person spiritually related to another), which gets at the role of gossip in social connection. When we share stories and news with our colleagues we are strengthening the bonds between us.
But. Gossip forges connections between the sharers of gossip, but it can weaken the connections between those people and the person they are speaking about. Gossip isn’t about you and me, talking together about our broken hearts and new haircuts – it’s about you and me talking about our colleague’s broken heart and new haircut. The effects of gossip in the workplace can be hurtful, just they were in middle school.
There is another kind of work gossip that we engage in that is harder to see as unhelpful, or even to see as gossip. That is talk about other people’s work performance or work style. Let me give you an example:
A colleague and I are sitting in my office, talking about a task we are working on together. And one of us says to the other: “colleague Z really should hear this information. She has been telling everyone to do this the old way, and she doesn’t listen when anyone tells her to do it the new way. She is so abrasive that no one will tell her she is wrong, because she’ll bite their head off.”
Neither of us is Z’s supervisor, and neither of us is Z. What is the purpose of sharing this piece of information? On the surface the purpose is to fix the problem: what should we do? But really, we both know that isn’t so. Our discussion won’t fix the problem. Our real purpose is connection, to share and commiserate and build rapport. Another charitable way to look at the conversation is to assume that you and I are aiming to get advice on what to do, or that the more junior of us is raising it to the more senior of us in the hope that the more senior colleague will somehow take it up the line to someone who will fix it. In other words, we feel as if we are engaging in feedback, when we are really engaging in gossip.
Ideally, if you have something to say about someone’s work performance, you should say it to them. Clearly, directly, and kindly. If that thought fills you with horror, consider why. Maybe you simply aren’t used to providing people direct feedback, in which case you just need to practice. Or, maybe the thought of providing direct feedback (instead of “indirect feedback,” i.e. gossip), is uncomfortable because the things you would say are not important enough to be said directly. In that case, let them go unsaid. It may be that you are using discussion about colleagues’ work as a way to bond with other colleagues, or raise your own experience without exposing yourself too much. Knowing why you have the urge to talk about a colleague can help you decide when to talk, and when to let things go.
There are times you can and should talk about other people’s performance, of course. If someone else’s behavior impacts you, and you have already spoken to that person directly, or if you have reason to believe that would be harmful, you should talk to someone. You could talk to your own supervisor, or the person who manages your troublesome colleague’s work. You could ask HR for advice on how to proceed. Maybe you have a mentor or coach at work who you could talk to. The important thing here, though, is that your problem is not a hot potato; it should not be casually dropped into someone else’s lap to deal with. You have feedback for someone, and it might get uncomfortable to provide.
None of us wants to go back to middle school and its gossip. I don’t know that any of us spoke the language there, really. We were all foreigners. We can have a different lingua franca at work, though, one that relies not on gossip about each other, but on trust that we will tell each other hard truths. After the Guess jeans and Swatch watch-fueled debacle of 7th grade, I am hopeful that now, as grown-ups, someone would tell me directly if my Talbots pants were just so wrong, rather than talking about my fashion flubs with office mates. And if I was doing my expense report incorrectly, or being a jerk when I was tired and stressed, I hope for the same: that I would get that news directly, from a colleague anywhere on the ladder, who held that hot potato and provided feedback, even when gossip would have felt a whole lot better.