How to Turn Office Gossip into a Learning Tool

Master the side-text

I was at the top of my design firm, seemingly invincible. But I also just so happened to be running a division that was struggling and on the verge of failure. To me, saving the office meant hitting the road and going out into the world to talk about our work and showcase what we were capable of.

So I went to the annual TEDWomen Conference. It was something I’ll never regret as I met so many inspiring people and wrote the first part of my book, Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication, during that week. But while I was away, I knew that office gossip about me and my struggling team was fomenting and that being gone that week would probably be my demise. In retrospect, what the office needed more was someone to stay at home and tend to the direct needs and concerns of the employees.

The week I came back they announced that I would be stepping down from my role. I’d been canceled. The gossip from the weeks prior had spread and became reality while I hadn’t done anything to stem it.

I suspect this scene, or at least a few elements of it, might feel familiar to many leaders and managers reading this. Gossip, once it picks up momentum in any office setting can feel impossible to stop. Not only that, it often has a toxic effect on the company culture as a whole. It’s a kind of virus where employees begin to assume that gossiping is the norm for the company.

I thought about this a lot while writing my book. Simply telling your employees and colleagues, “Don’t gossip,” is not exactly helpful instruction. Gossip is a deep-seated human impulse. Every culture in every civilization has gossipped. So I went looking for a better alternative. In the process, I stumbled upon something called Pro-Social Gossip: the idea of cultivating a culture of positive or value-driven gossip.

The most compelling example I know of Pro-Social Gossip is from a Peruvian activist who quite literally curbed domestic abuse in her town by employing this technique. She told me that the mothers of the town all would meet together every morning to do some chores and work and would pass the time with local gossip. Through those conversations the identities of certain abusive men became clear. So, she then took it upon herself to go see these men individually and gossiped to them about the other men in the village who were abusing their wives. She would say “Weak no?” suggesting that this behavior was cowardly. She was tapping into their insecurities and playing on cultural constructs about male pride and shame. The gossip spread through town and much of the abuse subsided soon thereafter.

Of course, domestic abuse in the workplace is not usually what most of us are having to navigate in our daily lives, but after years of research into how to design and create the best conversations, I have gathered together four tips that I recommend to every client no matter their business to help foster Pro-Social Gossiping in the workplace. Or even more commonplace, to stem a culture of toxic gossip that has already taken hold.

1. The Random Call

Call a colleague out of the blue. Let them know you were just thinking about them and wanted to see what was going on. Vent to them or be a safe sounding board for them to vent to you. Someone you like and someone you trust. The surprise nature of the call will disarm them and the phone provides extra intimacy that makes it feel like your conversation is protected. Which it should be.

2. The Side Text

This is a tricky one, but often I find teams doing it on their own without prompting, which is to create interior jokes or dialogue via texting during a meeting. The key here as a leader is not to discourage this but to make sure these texts are fun-natured and good-hearted even if they are gibing a colleague or a boss. The goal here is not to curb the behavior but to create soft rules where people know that spiteful side-texting is not cool or funny. This is a way where a company can tacitly approve of gossip while creating a light-hearted gossip culture instead of a toxic one.

3. The Emoji

You might be surprised how much work an emoji can do for you when it comes to pro-social gossip. The nature of emojis themselves is childish and fun and so it often takes the intensity or aggression out of a potentially heated situation. It’s also the perfect way to express connotation without being explicit. An emoji of you facepalming yourself after a screw-up shows humility and self-deprecation without needing to talk about it too much further. Whenever I feel a conversation slipping sideways or becoming too intense in text format, I always default to emojis to lighten the mood and ease the tension.

4. The Important Conversations

This is a no-brainer, but we get it wrong so often. Many people feel that written communication is best to keep a paper trail of what was said in case anything ever becomes litigious or goes off the rail. But we lose so much in text. We need to keep as much intonation and body language and non-verbal dialogue in our important conversations as possible. If you need a paper trail, have it on zoom with the record button. Anything important should be kept out of DM, email, work slack, and text.

Looking back, perhaps there was nothing I could have done to stop what was coming in my own particular case. And please don’t feel bad for me. I ended up taking a month off and traveled around Australia and had an amazing time. When I came back to the states, Fast Company had called me one of the Ten Leaders to Watch for the year. I got a text from my former boss asking if I was coming back. I already knew the answer though. I quit and set out to finish my book.

My episode in particular is full of soft lessons on leadership and trying not to let getting canceled, cancel your spirit. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had I and the company done a better job of cultivating a Pro-Social Gossip work environment earlier on.

My situation is like so many others in that these informal or social dynamics of a company, dynamics that are hard to capture on a balance sheet or describe clearly in a monthly review, end up being the difference between a company’s success and dysfunction. The difference between a team working hard towards a goal and learning together and a group of individuals all hurrying to book their next flight to Australia.

Founder of Making Conversation, senior design advisor for Rockefeller Foundation & former global managing partner of IDEO — fan of words and good conversation.

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