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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Workplace doctor: how to deal with malicious gossip

If this behaviour is adversely affecting on the team it definitely needs to be addressed

Gossip, if designed to undermine, can be debilitating to an entire team. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Gossip, if designed to undermine, can be debilitating to an entire team. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

I work for a large logistics company based in the Middle East and I am at a loss as to what to do about a relatively new member of my team who outwardly appears to be suitably respectful towards me but whom others have told me is the exact opposite when I am not there. It seems this behaviour is having an adverse effect on the rest of team but it is tricky because this disrespect is reported, rather than observed by me or any other manager. How should I approach this?

MB, RAK

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people,” so said the late Eleanor Roosevelt.

As a manager it can be expected that some degree of discussion will go on informally behind your back and, as hard as it can be, if you paid attention to every rumour it can become very distracting and potentially take your attention and energy away from successfully leading your team towards the desired goals and targets. However, if this behaviour is starting to have an adverse impact on the team it definitely needs to be addressed.

Within organisations there are both formal and informal communication channels and leaders need to be able to straddle aware of both of these. Formal communication happens through predetermined channels, it tends to be well documented and reliable and although the speed at which it travels is slower, there is evidence of what has happened. Informal communication (also known as "the grapevine") often happens at the water-cooler or during smoke and coffee breaks. The information generated from this level of communication flows freely but tends to be less reliable, with no evidence, or documentation relating to it. Because the informal information can be very fast and can potentially be very influential, it can be effective when employees discuss work related problems, saving time and costs. On the negative side, it can also be the source of rumours and gossip. Gossip happens at every level of an organisation having mainly four functions – to inform, entertain, create intimacy and to influence. But negative gossip can have very destructive effects within an organisation. Therefore, it is crucial to endeavour to establish and develop open, honest and respectful communication at all levels within the organisation.

Gossip impedes trust and openness within a team, which according to Patrick Lencioni, is one of five dysfunctions within a team; absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and being more focused on personal success rather than team success. Looking at these five points it is easy to see that negative gossip plays into each of these dysfunctions. On the other hand, high performing teams are characterised by team members that have solid and deep trust in each other and in the team's purpose and feel free to express feelings and ideas, knowing everybody is working towards the same goals. Communication is open and honest, with constructive criticism and well managed conflicts. Disagreement is viewed as a good thing and team members will diffuse tension and friction in a healthy way, ensuring that problems are solved and obstacles removed. No individual member is more important than the team.

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So, where does this leave you dealing with reported gossip? Firstly, if you leave it to fester you may find that one bad apple spoils the bunch - spreading toxicity across both your team and the organisation as a whole. Secondly, this information has been given to you by others, therefore it would require you to have a certain level of trust in your sources. Lastly, there is usually an underlying reason for this type of disrespectful behaviour. Handling this may be a real test of your leadership and others may take note of how you manage the situation, so it is important that it is done both professionally and gracefully. You want to approach this with a positive attitude, separating your own emotions from the situation and trying to be as objective as you can. The key element here is communication - from creating a private and safe space for a productive conversation to take place to excellent listening skills that will encourage the person to voice any concerns that they may have. Model the behaviour you would like to see in this person, by being open and transparent - there may be a blind spot in your own leadership that would be useful for you to be aware of and this interaction with him/her could well be informative. Be careful with accusations but let the person know that disrespectful behaviour that has a negative impact on the team is not acceptable.

Doctor's Prescription:

As challenging as this may be, addressing the reported behaviour sooner rather than later is the way forward. Balancing your ability to be enquiring and supportive of the underlying reasons for this person’s behaviour with being firm and clear about expectations within your team is what you’re ideally aiming for.

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