Gossip Too Much? Surprising Ways it Could Be Hurting Your Career
Do you find yourself caught up in workplace gossip? That what often starts as idle chit-chat between colleagues quickly turns into talking badly about another person? If so, realize you’re not just harming others, but your reputation too. Read the surprising ways gossip may be hurting your career and how to stop it in its tracks.
At a recent networking event, a colleague pulled me aside and conspiratorially whispered in my ear, “Did you hear the latest news about Jennifer? She just got fired from her job. Rumor has it that she really screwed up!"
Before I knew it, I got sucked in, speculating the reasons for her demise. The truth was, Jennifer came off as condescending and arrogant, so throwing dirt her way felt justified and satisfying.
Yet afterward, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd done something wrong. Not only did I feel guilty about disparaging another colleague, but I wondered what juicy piece of gossip my co-conspirator was spreading about me behind my back!
Why Do We Gossip?
As social beings, talking about others is part of our human nature. It's not always bad and can even be beneficial if conveying important social information helps others. For example, if you've fallen prey to a person's dishonest practices, sharing your concerns with others can warn them not to be misled.
Yet, it’s considered harmful gossip when we spread rumors, breach a confidence or discuss others in a mean-spirited way. This type of gossip isn't about helping others. It's about undermining another person to feel better about ourselves.
People who routinely gossip about others often struggle with negative self-worth. If we feel inadequate or insecure, talking about other people's perceived deficiencies can make us feel superior by comparison. Sharing privileged information about the affairs of others can also give us a sense of power and importance that we are "in the know."
Gossiping also creates a (false) sense of intimacy and belonging with others. However, it’s not based on similar values and experiences but rather on shared exclusion and maliciousness. Author Brene Brown refers to this type of counterfeit trust as “common enemy intimacy," whereby our connection is founded on a mutual dislike and negativity toward the same people.
How It Gets In Your Way
Workplace gossip fosters conflict, decreases productivity, and creates an unwanted distraction that takes the focus away from the vision and mission of the organization. When taken to an extreme, it can be seen as a form of bullying and workplace harassment. It's not only detrimental to others, but also damages your relationships and reputation.
Engaging in a bit of light gossip here and there about a neutral third party can be harmless and fun. Who doesn't enjoy dishing on the latest celebrity scandal? But if you find yourself chatting about your friends and colleagues' personal and sensitive affairs, be forewarned - you might be labeled a gossip! If so, here are four ways it may be affecting your career and how to stop.
1. Gossip Erodes Trust
Lori confided in Teresa that she was getting a divorce. She entrusted Teresa to keep it confidential, but the temptation to share was too great. Teresa reasoned it would be okay if she only shared this with her closest confidantes. However, the “secret” eventually made its way around the office and back to Lori.
One of the quickest ways to erode trust is to betray confidence. Communicating private information that’s not ours to share violates trust with the person being discussed and those engaged in the gossip itself. We all realize that if a colleague shares someone else's secrets, we probably can't trust her with ours.
Trust is a fragile thing. Easy to break, easy to lose, and one of the hardest things to ever get back. ~Unknown
Keep it to Yourself: If you are told something in confidence, keep it to yourself (unless what they share poses severe risk or harm to themselves or others). If there is any gray area or you are unsure if it should remain confidential, make a point to check back with the person to ensure it aligns with their wishes.
While this may seem obvious, we often justify our reasons for breaching confidence, such as under the guise of care and concern for the other person’s situation or challenges. Yet, more often than not, our desire to share their secret is really about satisfying our own emotional needs, not theirs.
2. Gossip Damages Your Relationships
Years ago, a friend at work overheard me venting about her behind her back. I was frustrated she got the promotion I thought I deserved. While I apologized, our friendship was never the same.
It's bad enough to spread gossip about those we don't know or like, but we often do this with our friends and family too. While it may seem puzzling, often, it's because we feel angry or jealous about perceived wrongdoing or injustice. While it may feel warranted and validating, it can also cause irreparable harm to your closest relationships.
Process Don’t Gossip: Many see gossip as processing our feelings. Yet they aren't the same. When we gossip, our focus is on undermining the other person to make ourselves feel or look better. When we process our feelings, it's to better understand how the situation is affecting us so we can let it go and move forward.
When you feel tempted to vent with another colleague, ask yourself what you really need. Is it acknowledgment, validation, maybe even a little bit of loyalty? Once you are clear, identify a neutral person (e.g., a friend outside of work or a coach) who can help you process some of the assumptions and interpretations you may be making about the person and situation.
3. Gossip Makes You Look Like a Drama Queen (or King)
Gossip often serves as a cheap form of entertainment for many of us. Like the thrill of reading celebrity tabloids and watching reality TV, focusing on the drama of others distracts us from our own lives and makes us feel relieved by comparison – thank goodness that's not my life! Yet, when the focus is about the trials and tribulations of people you know, the price comes at their expense. And your reputation.
If you regularly engage in or spread gossip, you might be perceived as a drama queen (or king). That you seem to thrive on the goings-on of others because your own life isn't that interesting or stimulating. While having your finger on the pulse of everyone else's business may gain you some popularity with other gossipmongers, you probably won't be trusted or taken seriously.
Don’t Fuel Drama: Resist the urge to stir up and fuel the drama. This can be hard to do if you aren't self-aware. Recognizing what triggers you to gossip and what might be underneath this need can help you anticipate and counteract this tendency.
Next time someone whispers in your ear, “guess what I heard," or discloses confidential details about a colleague’s stint in rehab, try not to let your curiosity get the best of you. Instead, try to shift the conversation to safer ground by showing compassion for the absent third party, "I'm sorry to hear of his struggles. I hope he is getting the support he needs.”
4. Gossip Undermines Your Leadership
I once worked with a leader who I greatly admired and respected. Until I heard him harshly criticize another colleague behind her back. After that, I saw him through new eyes. Not as a person of integrity, but someone to be wary of.
Leaders face challenges and need to let off steam like all of us. But when they rely on gossip to vent their frustrations, it violates trust and erodes team morale. It's hard to be effective and influential when your team doesn't feel safe with you.
Lead by Example: While you probably can’t shut down office gossip completely, you can model what's acceptable (and what's not). Leaders set the tone within their organizations and are expected to foster a culture of integrity and transparency. You do this by staying above the fray when it comes to workplace gossip and discouraging it within your team.
Do you Gossip Too Much?
The lure of gossip is undeniable. How often have you found yourself talking about a friend's flattering new hairstyle to speculating about whether or not she's had a little "work" done too? While this may seem like innocent chit-chat, it can be fodder for rumors that make her look bad, and you too.
A good rule of thumb for determining if your conversation is crossing the line into gossip territory is to ask yourself if you'd say it to the person's face. If not, that's probably a sign you shouldn't be saying it to anyone.
Please contact me if you'd like more information on how I can help you stay clear of workplace gossip and other career-limiting behaviors and mindsets. You are also welcome to schedule a complimentary coaching session to experience the power of coaching to help you "get out of your own way" so you can realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator