Avoiding The Gossip Trap At Work To Stay Focused

SUMMARY POINTS

> Good gossip helps us make friends
> Bad gossip loses us friends and hurts people
> Know the difference and you’ll make work life better

“She said what?!”

Probably one of the most used phrases in high school, right?

As teenagers, information was our currency. We wanted to know everything about everyone - and we wanted to be the first to know it too.

The problem was that everyone was talking about everyone else, and so eventually you’d come to know what your so-called friends were saying about you.

You’d find out that a friend had betrayed your confidence and shared one of your secrets. So your response would be to do the same to them.

Eventually, everything would come to a head. You’d stop being friends, and everyone would gossip about that too.

Then a week later, it would be like nothing ever happened. There’d be a new drama to whisper about in the hallways and send notes about in class.

Most of the time, no real harm was done - just a few bruised egos.

But as we grew up, this habit of talking about other people didn’t go away.

It just evolved to cover more serious topics.

Instead of “I can’t believe Sally tried to kiss my boyfriend of 2 weeks” it’s “Did you hear that Melissa is having an affair with Chad?”

And the result of more serious gossip is more serious shit hitting a more serious fan.

Friendships, jobs, careers and livelihoods can be ruined by what starts out as simple office gossip.

And even when it’s not ruining lives, gossip just doesn’t feel great most of the time.

Sure, we might start out wanting to get something off our chest because someone pissed us off, but once the conversation descends into personal attacks, it makes us feel...well...shitty.

All that negative energy can really bring our mood down, as well as distracting us from work.

So does that mean that if you enjoy a good little gossip sesh, you’re a monster?

No, it means you’re human!

Because there is a good side to gossip.

When we’re just catching up on the latest office happenings and nobody’s getting hurt, it makes us feel connected and is a welcome break from our computer screens.

The trick is to keep the positives of social interaction with our co-workers while avoiding the negatives of mean gossip.

Why Do We Gossip?

There is some argument about what counts as gossip but for the purposes of this article, we’ll define gossip as any conversation about other people’s personal or professional lives.

Using this definition, gossip can be traced waaaaay back to our ancient ancestors.

In a time when we lived in small communities and had to work together to hunt, gather, fight off wild animals and the like, it was important to know who you’re surrounded by.

Knowing information about everyone made it easier to know who you could trust to have your back on a hunt in the wild and who would steal all your food and leave you for dead.

It was also extremely important when different communities started coming together to socialize.

As well as giving our ancestors the heads up on who was a trustworthy ally, it also acted as a tool to form bonds with those people.

Gossiping is a tool that we have used for centuries, essentially to make friends.

However, today gossiping has gone beyond its initial purpose.

Instead of just getting the facts on people, it can now be used to completely destroy people’s reputations - and sometimes the gossip isn’t even true.

So how do we take the good (nobody wants to be friendless!) and leave the bad?

The Good Side Of Gossip

Research has found that gathering information on others literally changes how we view them.

When we hear negative things about someone, our brains notice them faster than others when they walk into a room. It’s a way of keeping us alert of any potential danger.

So, hearing about the latest outbursts from John in IT means that at the next work party, you’ll spot him fast enough to get the hell away!

As mentioned before, gossip is also a great way to create bonds with your colleagues.

This study from the University of Cologne found that sharing gossip with someone increases the likelihood that you’ll form a friendship.

In fact, those who don’t gossip are more likely to have difficulty maintaining relationships and often find themselves on the outside of social circles.

This is because sharing gossip builds trust. You’re entering into an unspoken agreement that you’ll exchange valuable information and won’t snitch on where you got the information from.

Not engaging in office gossip tells your colleagues that you don’t want to connect with them and that you couldn’t care less about them or anyone else at work.

Not a good look unless you want to be the office grinch.

In the bigger picture, gossip is also good because it keeps people in check - as confirmed by this study.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the fear of being the focus of office chatter keeps us from slacking at work, losing our temper or doing anything else that would be outside the social norms of our workplace.

So, gossip helps us to avoid danger, make friends, and have a happy, co-operative workplace.

But there are two sides to every coin.

The Bad Side Of Gossip

The same University of Cologne study mentioned above also proves that too much gossip loses you friends.

Think about it this way. When you start out in a friendship, surface level connections like talking about others and sharing interests is enough to build an initial bond.

But as a friendship progresses, the way you connect to each other should as well.

Instead of focusing on the latest office drama, you should be sharing some positivity, important happenings in life and relying on each other for support through work challenges.

Using negative gossip as a bonding tool beyond a certain point in a friendship will make you seem shallow, so it’s important to know when to stop bad gossiping and transition to more meaningful things.

But whether you’re talking to an old friend or a new intern, any gossip is bad gossip when its intentions are negative.

Exchanging information and building bonds is one thing, but negative gossiping in order to get ahead at work is a big no-no.

If everyone knows that you and Julie are both gunning for the same promotion and your favorite topic of conversation becomes Julie’s flaws, your gossip has become self-serving trash-talk. You might as well be a politician.

Not only will this lose you respect and friends, it could also get you in trouble at work or at the very least, make you less likely to be the one who bags the promotion.

Have you ever heard a wild rumor about someone, only to find out it’s either partly or completely untrue? By the time you find out the truth, the damage is already done.

Gossip can destroy careers and sometimes lives.

When work gossip becomes personal, it’s almost always moves into bad gossip territory.

Gossiping about someone being pregnant, having an affair, or having a drug problem - especially if the person in question hasn’t yet chosen to make this information public - is not only a huge intrusion into that person’s life outside work, it can also affect their life in work.

Imagine if your manager found out about something personal not from you but from a chat around the proverbial watercooler? Sucks, right?

As well as intruding on privacy, it also turns that person’s work environment into an unsafe, unkind, toxic environment where they constantly feel talked about and judged.

VIDEO: Meerkats Spread Office Gossip
YOUTUBE: Robert Bostick
LENGTH: 00:31

Summary points:
> Relationship gossip spreads fast
> It’s not nice for the person being talked about
> Don’t be a gossipy meerkat

For those of us who do love a quick gossip in the hallways, it can have a detrimental effect on our concentration and productivity at work.

If you make it known that you’re always available to hear the latest scandal, your day will be littered with colleagues stopping by your desk for a chat, sending you non-work related emails, calling you for a “quick chat” - you’ll constantly be interrupted.

This will stop you from getting in the flow at work and will reduce your productivity. And ultimately, you’ll fall behind schedules and start drowning in heavier workloads.

A lot of bad gossip can also affect how you work with others in your team.

Let’s say you’ve been listening to your work BFF go on about how much they dislike Bob for weeks.

Next thing you know, you’re put on a project with him.

Before you’ve even met Bob, you’ve formed an opinion - when the only thing that’s really going on is a personality clash between your work BFF and Bob.

You might end up unintentionally being a bit cold or withdrawn, leading to a tepid work relationship and probably a pretty average project outcome because of that.

In another scenario, the tables could be turned.

You put your all into a project only to receive a frosty reception from your colleague...and you find out later it’s because he heard that you’ve been talking smack behind his back.

Bad gossip can do irreparable damage in the workplace; to individuals, teams and the company as a whole.

How To Gossip Well

We need good gossip in order to build social bonds and stay in the know, but how can we do this while avoiding all of the negative juju that comes with bad gossip?

Know The Difference

The first step is to be able to spot when gossip is moving away from friendly information exchange towards downright defamation.

Is what you’re talking about embarrassing for the person being discussed?

Does the conversation laugh at or celebrate someone else’s misfortune?

Is the conversation overwhelmingly negative?

Do you feel uncomfortable talking about this?

Is the gossip hurtful towards the person being discussed?

Are you speaking about rumours instead of facts?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re firmly in bad gossip territory.

If you’re being totally honest with yourself, you might wonder what’s left to talk about once all of these are ruled out. No judgement, we get it.

There’s still a lot of juicy insider info you can share without getting into the negatives.

You can talk about a colleague’s promotion, someone who proposed over the weekend, the most recent episode on your fav series - pretty much anything that is factual, already in the public domain and either neutral or positive.

Run Away

If you’re committed to not being involved in negative gossip, it’s not enough to simply not say anything. Listening to negative gossip makes you complicit.

So, when you hear the conversation veering in that direction, try to bring it back by saying something positive or neutral.

Gossip: “Did you hear about Andy? Apparently, his ass got fired.”

You: “I heard some rumours but I’m sure whatever happened, there’ll be an official announcement soon.”

Gossip: “Sophie is such a bitch, did you hear what she said to her manager?”

You: “She can be difficult sometimes but she works hard at her job.”

Responses like this should shut the conversation down, as you’re making it clear you don’t want to engage in make-believe or character assassination.

But, if that doesn’t work and the chat continues into slander central, just make your excuses and leave, “Sorry, I’ve gotta get back to finishing a project.”

Choose Your Circle Wisely

They say we are the sum of the five people we spend most of our time with.

If your work circle is made up solely of people who love to focus on the negative and put others down, you’ll find yourself becoming more and more like them.

Be wary of who you let into your inner work circle.

If they’re gossiping to you, they will gossip about you.

Try to make connections with people who bring positive energy to the workplace. If they bring it in the form of healthy snacks, even better!

But what if you work in a team of just you and your boss or everyone on your floor is as dull as dishwater?

Here are a few ways you can find your tribe at work:

1) Join An Activity Group

Most workplaces these days have informal activities you can join, from sports teams to book clubs. This is a great way to find like minded colleagues to make friends with.

2) Start A Support Group

If activities aren’t your thing, you could start a support group. Maybe it’s for parents or people in tech or LGBTQ employees. You could arrange monthly lunches or networking drinks and, there you have it - a new inner circle!

3) Volunteer at a charity event 

If your company hosts or sponsors any volunteering and/or charity events throughout the year, join in on the fun. Not only will you get to know your coworkers better, but you’ll also be helping out a good cause. Plus, it’s proven that helping others and being grateful is one of the best ways to get and stay happy.

4) Join A Lunch Crew

There’s usually a dedicated group of coworkers that always eat together, whether it’s going out to lunch or eating in with packed lunches. It can be intimidating to break into a new circle, but a little healthy snack bribery always works.

5) Be Social

If you only make an outside the office appearance once a year at the holiday party, it’s gonna be pretty tough to make friends with anyone other than the people you directly work with. Say yes to that Friday happy hour. Say yes to that office cake party (but hold off on the cake). Get social and find other people with the same interests, hobbies or passions as you do!

Create A Dedicated Space / Time For Catch Ups

Once you have your inner circle, be careful not to fall into the trap of being overly-available. You’re at work to work after all.

A great way to keep your work socialization from affecting your focus is to create space and time for your social activities.

Maybe you meet your work friends every day for a 10 minute coffee break at 3pm.

Or maybe you catch up over lunch together and get some good laughs in with your food.

As boring as it sounds, having your social time structured means you won’t be distracted and disturbed (or at least not as much) throughout the working day.

Avoid The Drama Triangle

In a lot of gossip, there's usually three people involved much like a love triangle. Dr. Stephen Karpman, a psychiatrist and author, created the “drama triangle” to show what’s really going on in most conflicts. There are 3 roles:

1) The victim - the person who feels they are being victimized

2) The persecutor - the one who is bullying the victim

3) The rescuer - the person who is an ally of the victim and wants to save them

In workplace gossip, this triangle often plays out. The victim is usually the person doing the gossiping, while the listener is usually in the role of the rescuer.

To avoid getting into this dysfunctional pattern, shut it down right from the start.

If a friend (the victim) comes to you to complain about a colleague (the persecutor), ask this simple question, “Have you spoken to them about it?”

This is what they’ll think to themselves, “Spoken to them about it?! Why would I do that? I don’t actually want to resolve anything, I just want to bitch and moan, that’s way more satisfying.”

Let’s be honest that’s what most of us would think.

But, when you reply with, “Have you spoken to them about it?” it cuts through all the bullshit, gets straight to the point and minimizes the triangle from establishing a long-term foundation.

This short video explains the concept in more detail.

VIDEO: Gossip - The Poison Triangle of Mistrust
YOUTUBE: Judy Kay Mausolf
LENGTH: 4:36

Summary points:
> Venting about someone is the same as negative gossip
> Bad gossip is anything negative and/or personal
> Use a trigger word or phrase to minimize gossip
> It all stops with you and eventually you’ll be free

When the gossip isn’t something negative or personal about someone, like the general pressures of workloads, deadlines, projects etc., having another person to talk to is a very good thing. It helps to temporarily relieve surface stress.

In fact, talking with someone and venting about work is one of the ways we recommend to blow off some steam and manage work stress.

However, when it’s negative gossip about someone, using a trigger word or question will usually stop people in their tracks.

It’s a signal that you’re not here to be their rescuer - so they’ll either actually think about going back to the persecutor to resolve the issue...or they’ll just find someone else to save them.

Either way, it saves you!

And if you catch yourself in the role of the victim, just remember that while office drama can seem exciting in the moment, it usually leads to someone getting hurt in the long run.

The approach of tackling issues head on (like dealing with work assholes) causes more discomfort in the short-term but it makes for a drama free workplace which is a much better environment to spend 40+ hours of your week!

Say Goodbye To Bad Goss

Gossiping can make us feel good.

We feel like we’re “in the know” and sharing secrets brings us closer to our colleagues.

Gossiping is great! Except for when it’s not.

The temporary excitement of gossiping is long gone when the guilt creeps in later.

And is there anything worse than that intense feeling of shame when you’re caught in the act - by the very person you’re bad-mouthing?

Bad gossiping leaves us feeling drained and ashamed.

Not an ideal combo when there’s work to be done and deadlines to meet!

Using the techniques above, you can reap the benefits of good gossip and protect yourself - and others - from the ills of bad gossip.

But just like everything else in life, this takes practice.

When we get stuck in the habit of gossiping it can take a while for us to:
- Notice when we’re going down that path
- Get ourselves off it, stat!

So be kind to yourself while you change this habit - none of us can change our patterns just like that.

Keep practicing the techniques, don’t worry about it when you fall off the wagon, and don’t give up.

With time, instead of using gossip as a tool to tear others down, you’ll be using it only as a tool for building good bonds, spreading positivity and having fun at work.

And, more importantly, you’ll keep it from interfering with your job and your well-being.

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]