She Said What?! 

Gossip in the Workplace and a Leader’s Response

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  We’ve all heard the old adage.  Although I understand the intent of the saying, I must disagree.  Words can hurt, and in the workplace they can be very destructive.

A few years ago, I had an interview for a teaching position in which the majority of questions asked by the administrator revolved around the issue of gossip.  The interviewer didn’t concentrate upon my qualifications and/or educational philosophy.  He didn’t focus upon my students’ test scores or my instructional practices.   Why?  Because, although we know better, gossip runs rampant at schools, just like in other workplaces.  As educators, we teach our students about the dangers of gossip (remember the old “telephone” game?), yet we often become a part of it ourselves.

What is gossip?  Who and what can we talk about in the workplace?  Friendly discussion that makes references to others in a general, supportive way is not gossip, it’s just conversation.  But when we feel the need to talk in hushed tones and/or when the topic is picking holes in another’s character, this is gossip.  Sometimes gossip is less personal.  It’s a wildfire fueled by fear and supposition, usually about a general change in the workplace.

What does gossip do to a school?  Gossip breeds distrust and puts up walls between co-workers.  How does this serve our students?  When we are consumed with “who said what about whom” we can not truly concentrate upon our number one priority, the children in our care.  Morale is affected negatively and with it the ability to do our jobs.

I say these things knowing that I am not at all perfect.  I’ve certainly made many mistakes in this area.  It is innately human to talk to others, share stories, and complain when we are upset.  Yet, as leaders, we need to be cognizant of our role and set an example for others.  Our words, what we do and do not say, can have a tremendous impact upon our school, as well as on others’ lives.  Our tongues have tremendous power.

James 3:3-6 “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue is also a fire…”

In closing, I found an article by Calvin Sun on techrepublic.com with some excellent tips regarding gossip and leadership.   I’ve highlighted some of them below.

1: Set the example and tone If you’re a leader or manager who wants to reduce or eliminate workplace gossip, take a look at yourself first. Are you gossiping about your own boss or peers? Are you speculating idly or complaining about future company policy? If so, don’t be surprised if your subordinates do the same thing. Set the right tone and those subordinates are more likely to follow.

2: Be open to hearing issues If your subordinates sense that you’re unwilling to hear about and discuss workplace issues, gossip may result. If they believe they can’t talk to you, they will merely complain to each other. If they can’t get clear answers to questions, they will speculate among themselves.

3: Refuse to be drawn in A good way of stopping gossip and rumors is simply to refuse to be drawn in. In other words, refuse to respond to comments about the absent person with more comments about that person. Even better, try to change the subject subtly. For example, the next time someone gossips about your co-worker Tom, try bringing up something about Tom’s child, perhaps with regard to something that child has in common with your own child. Then, begin talking about the children and their common activity rather than about Tom. Most likely, the group will not even notice that the gossip has changed to something else.

4: Focus on solutions not problems Much gossip arises when a group of workers is concerned about a particular problem. If you sense that the conversation in your group is headed toward complaining or gossiping, remember the old adage “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Instead of joining in with the complaining, simply ask the group what anyone thinks might be a solution. Of course, the group might not be able to come up with an answer. Furthermore, the boss might not go along with whatever the group comes up with. However, the exercise of focusing on solutions will take away from the urge to gossip.

5: Avoid self-righteousness If you try any of these techniques, do it in a low-key manner. Don’t announce or make a big deal about what you’re doing. Above all, avoid being condescending or lecturing people about the evils of gossip. Doing so will only alienate your co-workers. By being casual about dealing with the gossip, you remove the problem of creating a new problem for yourself.

As leaders, let’s encourage a culture of growth and solutions in our schools, instead of allowing the destructive nature of gossip to take seed.

Krista Bridenthal

Indianapolis, IN

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