About two-thirds of our conversation is devoted to social topics—talking about ourselves and others. According to the research of Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, the conversations revolve around personal relationships and experiences, our likes and dislikes, others’ behavior, “who is doing what with whom, and whether it’s a good or bad thing; who is in and who is out.” We seem to be obsessed with gossiping about others, from relatives, friends, partners, co-workers to high-ranking individuals and celebrities.
In his book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Dunbar claims that we are hard-wired for such gossip. He states that language evolved to enable our male ancestors to do things like co-ordinate hunts more effectively and goes so far as to say that “language evolved to allow us to gossip.” Our nearest relatives, the monkeys and apes, spend a fifth of their time grooming one another; this allows them to form bonds and partnerships. It is Dunbar’s theory that, as a species, we have evolved to replace this physical grooming with “vocal grooming,” which is another word for gossiping. Just as with non-human primates, gossiping for us constitutes a social bonding mechanism which helps us form alliances with one another.
Statistics show individuals spend an average of 65 hours per year gossiping and that 61 percent of the workforce engages in this activity. In a Scientific American article called “The Science of Gossip: Why We Can’t Stop Ourselves,” Frank T. McAndrew reinforces some of the benefits of gossiping which makes us feel connected to others, and helps keep bad behaviors in check for fear of becoming the target of gossip. But, apart from the loss of productivity, there are many downsides to gossiping, as we all know. While many of us find it reprehensible, we have all participated in some form of gossip. As McAndrew states, gossip “is a part of who we are.”
While it is not realistically feasible to suppress gossip in the workplace, there are things we do to mitigate its harmful effects. Here are some tips.
1. Lead a life that makes you proud of who you are
We cannot control what others choose to say about us, but there is less likelihood that we will be the target of gossip if we consistently conduct ourselves in an ethical manner. As Will Rogers put it humorously: “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.” Honesty and integrity, in all areas of our life, are personal assets that no one can ever take away from us.
2. Manage your online reputation
Social media networking encourages too much sharing of personal information: ill-advised status updates on Facebook or tweets of a private nature. Put a value on your online privacy, and be judicious in what you share. Everything you post forms a part of your digital fingerprints. At work, set up healthy, professional boundaries and teach others to respect them.
3. Practice good e-mail hygiene
Long ago I read this piece of advice: don’t say anything about anyone in an e-mail that you can’t afford to have 50 people read. After you have drafted an e-mail of a sensitive nature, go over it and purge anything that hints of gossip. Set up a personal policy that you will not forward any e-mail you receive which contains unkind remarks about someone. Protecting others’ reputation, even if they are no longer in the company, is a sign of leadership.
4. Raise the quality of the conversation
Develop a reputation for being the kind of person who speaks more about ideas than about others. Be well-read, develop interests in diverse areas such as your industry, your products, your community’s welfare and the world around you. As you expand your mind, you naturally expand others’ mind and, in so doing, help everyone rise above petty concerns.
5. Avoid gossiping yourself
While it is not practical to be seen as a self-righteous person who never participates in gossip, there is much you can do to avoid it without being ostracized or feeling socially isolated from your group. For example, if gossiping is habitual in your team meetings, you can listen, but not comment; you can redirect the conversation; you can stand up for someone who is absent; or you can also temporarily excuse yourself.
Know the difference between entertaining, informational and harmless office banter and malicious gossip. Draw the line on the latter and lead by example. People will notice and you might even succeed in inspiring others by your conduct.
6. Ask others to hold you accountable
Breaking a lifelong habit of casually making unkind remarks about others can be difficult. Ask others to help you by reminding you every time you make such a comment. A good place to start is at home. Marshall Goldsmith, a famous leadership coach, went so far as to ask his staff to impose a fine of $10 every time he made a destructive remark. It worked!
7. Enforce a no-gossip zone in your organization
If you are a leader, you can take an inspiration from Empower Public Relations, a Chicago firm who instituted a policy forbidding anyone to speak about others behind their back. In an ABC report called “Did You Hear? Office Bans Workplace Gossip,”CEO Sam Chapman says: “… gossip can be toxic and cleaning it up is an important mission.” This creates a healthy workplace environment where employees practice brutal honesty and don’t engage in damaging talk behind someone’s back. Encourage open communication in your team and eliminate rumors from spreading by sharing information in a timely manner.
8. Define professional conduct in the performance appraisal form
Most definitions of professional conduct in a performance review form talk about projecting a professional demeanor with colleagues and clients, but they don’t include not gossiping as an example of professional behavior. Consider adding strong and explicit wording such as “Makes destructive comments about others” and rate employees on this behavior. Watch what happens.
9. Handle gossip about you with equanimity
If you find yourself the target of gossip, deal with it calmly and with aplomb. This means not expressing anger or seeking revenge. Approach the person and let them know that you are aware of their actions and ask them to stop. Sometimes, this is enough to stop those who have been uncovered as malicious gossip is a coward’s act.
Perhaps the most important thing we can all do in avoiding gossip and its harmful effects in our lives is to free ourselves from the need to know other people’s business. There is something very liberating when we abandon the desire to know what others are doing and abandoning ourselves instead in our own achievements, in pursuing worthy goals and making a difference in our world. Any time spent concerning ourselves with the affairs of others is less time spent on what matters, on doing quality work and on focusing on what will make us grow. This is what Einstein’s may have meant with his less-known formula: “If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut.”