“I don’t take requests for people who are not in front of me. That’s called gossip.”
Every manager must intersect with this issue. Every manager must stop this issue as soon as it comes. You cannot let gossip abide in your team. No greater destructive force exists in the workplace.
What is gossip? Gossip is a negative leaning comment spoken by one person about another person who is not in the present conversation. Sorry if you don’t agree, that is my definition and I stick to it. After leading tens of thousands of constituents, members, and workers, this definition helps limit pain and promote a healthy environment.
What does it sound like? “Well, have you heard Jay is having trouble at home?” Innocuous? Hardly. This is a loaded, pain giving, detrimental, judgmental statement that has no place in a healthy work environment. Managers, you need to get this out of your meetings. You need to get this out of your hallways and back rooms. This is political minded manipulation and leads to the wrong decisions and conclusions.
Where does it come from? Sometimes it has a compassionate root. We really want to be tender and understanding toward others. How many times have I said something like this? Too often. That is why managers must have a no nonsense approach to prohibiting. All of us slip into these thoughts. Humans just do it. Our nature leans to wanting to include others in our judgments for affirmation of ideas. But, it hurts others.
Where else does it come from? Sometimes it is simply poisonous. Yes, there are many who live to manipulate the thinking of those around them. Of course you know who they are. They are attached to the rumor vine in the work place and incipiently receive and feed the monster. Ever had a good associate maligned by the vine and lose credibility? It happens. The most astute executives fall prey to listening to viners and forgetting the source of the slander. We allow hall talkers to get into our circle and affect our decision making.
How do you stop it? You can’t. But you can limit influence on yourself and you can constrain the amount flowing in your teams. One third shift worker came to me in a shop and complained about having to hear continual negative talk from other workers. Night shifts get boring. People don’t have access to all the day information. Gossip flows. It was a good time for some intervention. One by one I met with each night, second, and day shift worker on the team. One by one, I looked each of them in the eye. One by one, I gave each of them permission to respond to any company or non-company person and say the following statement when another would start a negative complaint about another team member. “That person is my co-worker. I like to think well of them. I’d prefer you did not make negative comments to me. Why don’t you talk directly to them.” When a predatory maligner hits that wall a few times, they tend to take the pain to some other group in their life like church or family or the bar down the street. Gossip loves the path of least resistance.
What if there is truth to it? So? Truth is not the issue. Negative conversation is the issue. When my children begin to learn some reason (three years old), I instruct each of them this way. “Don’t tattle on your brother. If he is doing something dangerous, come tell me. Otherwise, just talk to him.” Hopefully, your team is older than three. Of course if a team member is doing drugs on the job or being malicious or not following procedures action needs taken. Team members may have not been able to reach them or feel threatened if they try. Then, it must be moved up the chain. Maybe a couple of coworkers can get together with the person (not alone behind the back) and talk it out before running it up the manager pole.
What happens if you don’t address it? It will eventually undermine the performance of the team. Negative politics is a painful way to live and inefficient in decision outcomes. The cumulative effect will strip away at morale. People will avoid creative thought and innovation. A dull zombie glaze might be noticed in the team when it is advanced.
Summary: My hard line stance of not taking requests for another person communicates quite clearly. When a coworker of Jack comes with the seemingly harmless, “Jack would like to take next Friday off.” I respond with, “I’d be glad to entertain Jack’s request. Why not have Jack ask me, himself?” and go on with good managing. Communicate open concern along with privacy.
At the lake, I have an acre in the woods. Poison ivy likes to vine and pop up in the shade of the trees. Every Spring, out comes the herbicide and I walk the property and kill every leaf I can find of the stuff. When I started doing this it took an hour and even some digging up of vines. After three years, it takes a few minutes. if you stop a vine when the sprout pokes through the ground, you don’t have to deal with a thumb thick vine or an hundred instances at the base of every tree.