I’ve seen a lot of blogs and articles and Linkedin discussions about gossip over the past six months.  Most of the articles I’ve read focus on the destructive power of gossip and the idea that we can make it go away by creating and enforcing policies, and setting a different example as leaders.

I’m sure I’ve missed some very good articles that are clearer on this question, but the articles I’ve read don’t really address a definition of gossip.  What is gossip anyway?

I began to think about it after reading Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership (for a summary of this great book, see my earlier blog on the subject).  Bushe says that we are sense-making creatures and we make up stories to explain what we don’t know about our colleagues.  We observe their actions, listen to what they have to say, watch their body language and interpret their tone of voice.  Unless they describe their reasoning and intent to us, we are left to make assumptions about them.  Once we have a theory about why they’re doing what they’re doing, we look for evidence to back that theory up.   And we tend not to see evidence that doesn’t fit in with our theories.  If we dislike the impact that another person is having on us, we fall prey to something called “fundamental attribution error”, in which we assume that they must be doing what they’re doing out of bad intent, rather than because of the way they perceive their situations (which is undoubtedly different from how we perceive the situation). 

People look for others to sense-make with, and form cliques with those who tend to see things the same way, Bushe observes.  Isn’t this really what gossip is all about?  My colleague Jessica tells me that she is too busy to get to the project that I’ve asked her to help with.  The next day, I see her putting a spreadsheet together for another colleague that has asked for her help.  I’m angry because I think that she has prioritized that other colleague over me.  I think back to Jessica’s behavior over the past week and remember that she came in one morning and snapped at me because I had left some boxes in front of the door.  I don’t recall her snapping at anyone else that day.  Come to think of it, she didn’t say hello this morning.  I begin to watch Jessica carefully and notice everything she does.  I form a theory that Jessica does not respect me and thinks I’m less deserving of her help than others in the office.  I notice everything she does that fits with this theory (she doesn’t smile at my jokes) and disregard everything that doesn’t fit in (she doesn’t smile at anyone else’s jokes either).  I decide to test out this theory, but instead of going to Jessica to test it, I go to another colleague who tends to see things the way I do, Leslie.  I tell Leslie everything I’ve noticed.  Leslie nods, and says “Yes, I’ve long thought that Jessica plays favorites around here.  One time she put in a special office supply order for David but the next week she told me that she couldn’t do it for me because the supply company wouldn’t let her.”  I reply, “Maybe she only likes to go out of her way for the men in our office.  Maybe she doesn’t believe she should have to help the other women.”  Leslie agrees, and adds a theory, “That might be because she got her last promotion from a man, and now that’s where she sees the opportunities.”  And off we go, pursuing our theories, adding so-called “evidence”, and even dissecting Jessica’s personal life to find more clues to back up our new story.

Isn’t this what gossip really is?  Our attempts to make sense of other people?

If that’s the case, then I’m convinced that we can’t make gossip go away by mandating it.  We have to give people alternative tools to sense-make with.  We have to teach them that this kind of sense-making is counterproductive, and that we can understand each other better and improve our relationships by:

  • Sharing our experience with others, so that others don’t have to make up stories about us
  • Asking questions and listening in order to understand the experience of others
  • Giving each other the benefit of the doubt by assuming that someone is doing what they think best, given how they see their circumstances

What’s your definition of gossip?  Does this fit in with your own theories?  Do you think we can make gossip go away by teaching our work teams an alternative?

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