How to Stop Socially Acceptable Gossip

Not all gossip is created equal. Talking about someone’s personal life is unproductive, unhealthy, and divisive. It is a problem and should not be tolerated. But, this kind of gossip is not what I am going to talk about in today’s post. Today, I want to talk about when interpersonal conflict leads person A to process the issue, not with person B, but with someone else inside the organization (hypothetically person C). This may feel necessary to person A in order to get their thoughts straight, but, in reality, it is nothing other than socially acceptable gossip.

Socially acceptable gossip often originates from a manager’s inability or unwillingness to have a conversation with their direct report over an issue they have with them. Therefore, they talk about the issue with other managers or other people on the team, as they work up the courage to have the conversation. We can call this “processing,” but in reality it is still gossip, albeit the socially acceptable kind. This especially hurts a leader’s reputation when they engage in this kind of behavior because no one wants to follow someone talking about others behind their back.

I know the above to be true because in the past, I have struggled with this myself and, I am a lousy leader when I have. In fact, it has never been my intention to do it. I have always beaten myself up over it because I can easily keep things confidential when asked, and I don’t struggle with talking about other people’s personal lives (the other kind of gossip). But, I tend to process issues verbally, so I have found myself doing exactly what I have outlined above (talking to someone other than “B” about something going on). Doing this with someone outside of the organization, like an accountability partner or executive coach, can be helpful. This is especially true when they are willing to push back constructively. But, once again, that is not what I am talking about here. Here, I am talking about doing this with someone else inside the organization and that is wrong.

Why have I struggled with this?

I have come to discover that the answer (and it is not pretty) is that I do not love person B enough.

Let that sink in. You can change the word “love” if a different word suits your comfort level, but the problem here is one that goes to the heart. Put succinctly, do I love the person enough to have a direct conversation with them about whatever is going on rather than having the conversation indirectly with someone else? This is the question for today.

I have discovered that having the conversation quickly is important. Time tends to make the conversation more difficult in my mind, and time grows my hesitancy to do something that will inevitably be a little uncomfortable. The truth is that these conversations can be hard, and that doing the hard thing is the kind of things that make good leaders - and good managers - worth following.

In closing, how many people criticize leaders for having too many of these kinds of conversations? When, for example, have you heard someone complain, “I am leaving that company because the leader was always direct and transparent with me. I just can’t take it.” In reality, people often leave organizations because the leader did not have the guts to tell them what was wrong. While there are many other reasons why people leave organizations, this is one that is avoidable and it is one that leaders should avoid at all costs.

The point today is simple to understand, simple to do, and yet makes all the difference in our trustworthiness as a leader. Let’s love people enough to have any conversation directly with them and in turn, let’s root out all kinds of gossip in our organizations.

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