Psst! Does your organization have a gossip problem?

Dave Ramsey’s most recent EntreLeadership Advisor newsletter is entitled “Silence is Golden” and is on the debilitating effect that gossip can have on a workplace.

If you’ve heard Ramsey’s rants on the radio or attended one of his seminars, you know that he has “zero tolerance” for gossip. Employees at his company are told that gossiping is forbidden, and after one warning they are fired if they are caught doing it.

Image from carmenglennoverdrive.com.

“Gossip has the power to divide and destroy everything you’ve built,” according to Ramsey. “It kills morale, unity, productivity and creativity, and it causes turnover.”

As someone who spent about half his career in management, I don’t disagree that gossip can be harmful. But is Ramsey just being a control freak? After all, there is plenty of research by psychologists and anthropologists to indicate that gossip is part of our human nature. So telling people they can’t gossip is kind of like telling them they can’t breathe, eat or go to the bathroom.

According to a Forbes article citing research from Indiana University, gossip actually has some benefits: “[It] forges connections, builds trust, provides a means of learning unwritten social norms and offers a way of comparing ourselves with others.”

I never thought gossip had much value until I studied James Joyce in graduate school and encountered some scholarly articles on Joyce’s use of gossip in “Dubliners” and “Ulysses.” The noted critic Fredric Jameson makes the case that gossip is the language of oppressed people. Joyce’s fiction depicts the stultifying effect of British colonialism on Ireland, so gossiping becomes one way for Dubliners to preserve their culture and resist British imperialism.

In much the same way, workplace gossiping may be a reaction to an oppressive office environment. Show me an office that has a gossip problem, and I’ll bet there are workers who feel powerless, unappreciated or otherwise stymied by an autocratic manager who doesn’t trust his employees. By the same token, if there is a leadership vacuum and people have no clear sense of direction or accountability, the office grapevine goes into overdrive.

A smart management team should be looking for the root causes of gossip. In other words, it does no good to ban gossiping if managers aren’t willing to openly communicate with and trust their employees.

I have to give Ramsey credit in this department. He makes it clear that if you implement a “zero-tolerance” policy towards gossip, you need to do the following:

  1. Set an example for your employees.
  2. Define what gossip is so everyone knows to avoid it. According to Ramsey, “Gossip, by definition, is saying something negative about anyone or anything to someone who can’t do anything about it.”
  3. Provide a means for workers to legitimately gripe. Employees should be able to take their complaints up the chain without fear of reprisal. As Ramsey puts it, “Negatives go up, positives go down.”
  4. Practice transparent management! Good communication is absolutely essential.

Trust, transparency and empowerment are the keys, in my judgment. Think about the teams you’ve been a part of that have performed at their peak. Was gossip ever a problem? I would bet not.

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2 Responses to Psst! Does your organization have a gossip problem?

  1. Great stuff, Jay. That definition of gossip is spot-on.

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