Wright Foundation | July 19, 2016

Dealing with Malicious Gossip
in the Workplace

We’ve all worked with a “door closer.” You know the type: the moment they walk in your office and shut the door, you know they’re about to spill some juicy info about someone else.

Conversely, when you see this spreader of malicious gossip in the workplace walk in someone else’s office and shut the door, you wonder if they’re talking about you.

Some people can’t get enough office gossip. Are you one of them?

Whether you work with a gossiper or if you engage in dishing out the dirt yourself, you have to consider if your words and actions are really moving your team in a positive or negative direction.

Every interaction with a gossiper takes on an adolescent quality because gossip is an adolescent and immature form of communication. With gossipers, oftentimes you’re either “in” or “out,” which is why dealing with malicious gossip in the workplace can feel like you’re back in high school. Gossipers thrive on passive-aggression and fear tactics. People who are engaged and direct confront issues head-on. People who are secure in themselves don’t concern themselves with what’s going on in other people’s lives.

From Expressing Concern to Participating in Office Gossip

There’s a huge difference between gossip and expressing legitimate caring or concern for another person. Highly socially and emotionally intelligent people have empathy and sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Let’s say you’re advising your coworkers about a client going through a rough time or a coworker who might be struggling and could use a hand. These pieces of information aren’t necessarily born of negativity or malice, but rather, of tact and kindness. Talking about other people isn’t always negative. Sometimes sharing sensitive information can even can help someone else steer clear of an embarrassing gaff or misstep.

How to Identify Malicious Gossip in the Workplace

Identifying malicious gossip vs. genuine concern is usually pretty easy. Gossip is divisive and fraught with drama. Gossipers are often trying to cut down others, make excuses for their own shortcomings, or make up for an inferiority complex. The purpose of gossip isn’t to build up and help others, but to tear them down and allow the gossiper to appear like they’re in a superior position.

So how do you know for sure if you’re gossiping or just passing along information?

First of all, look at the intention and whom you’re sharing the “news” with. If you’re going to your boss with a genuine concern about a coworker or if you’re seeking guidance on a problem, then it’s probably not gossip. If you’re sharing something that was told to you in confidence, speaking to someone who’s not directly involved in the situation, or passing something on to make yourself look or feel better (or to make the other person look or feel bad), then it’s gossip. Gossip is no way to get ahead at work.

Examine your intention and if you stand to benefit from smearing someone’s reputation or from making others question their integrity. Have you addressed your concerns with the person directly? Have you put it out on the table and tried to work through your conflicts? Or are you throwing the “deal with it” ball in someone else’s court? Are you telling your boss or coworkers about someone’s behavior in the hopes they’ll intervene and “save” you or think more highly of you? Are you acting on your own insecurities?

When we engage in this damaging pattern of spreading malicious gossip in the workplace, hurting others, or swooping in to fix someone’s hurt feelings, we’re in the Drama Triangle.

Dealing with Soap-Opera-Level Office Drama

When we’re intrigued by someone else’s potential drama, whether it’s information about their relationship or job performance, we’re acting as a spectator. If we’re blowing confidentiality and perpetuating negativity, chances are we don’t have enough action in our own lives or we’re used to operating in the Drama Triangle.

Behavioral theorist Stephen Karpman explains the Drama Triangle as the classic pattern of Good Guy (the Victim), Bad Guy (the Persecutor) and the person who swoops in to save the Victim (the Rescuer). Everyone caught in a Drama Triangle feeds off the Triangle itself. Just as triangles are the strongest structure in geometry, a drama triangle can be hard to break out of.

Often we engage in this pattern because we’re not approaching situations out of legitimate concern, but out of schadenfreude, literally meaning “harm-joy” or happiness at another’s misfortune.

Schadenfreude is why people love to stay in the Drama Triangle. It’s the reason you may end up the playing the Persecutor, constantly gossiping about others. Or alternatively, it may cause you to play off the gossiper’s words, swooping in as the Rescuer to “save” the subject of the story. Whether you’re the Victim, the Villain, or the Hero of the story, there’s a distinct absence of personal responsibility in all three roles.

The Drama Triangle in Action at Work

Think about it. Susan comes into your office to tell you about a relationship issue Stan shared with her in confidence. If you engage with Susan and say, “Oooh, I thought he and his wife were having problems! That explains why his work’s been going downhill,” or “Well, I heard he’s been out late drinking a lot,”—you’re playing into the drama. Even if you want to come in as Rescuer and help Stan or stand up to Susan and defend him, you aren’t acting from a sense of personal responsibility.

If Stan’s problems aren’t directly affecting you or your team at work, then it’s not your responsibility to involve yourself with his life. If his performance has become a concern or if you’re trying to balance different personality types at the office, then going to him directly and addressing the issue head-on would be much more productive than discussing it behind closed doors.

In all relationships, work, romantic or otherwise, each party is responsible for their own emotions and role. By shifting to gossip, you may be trying to blame someone else, make someone feel guilty, or defend your actions or emotions rather than facing them and working through them in a productive, growth-oriented manner. Gossip causes us to tread water and churn in the same pool rather than swimming forward and past the problem.

Gossip isn’t worth it—and it does nothing for our personal and professional growth.

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