Question: Minimizing negative gossip in the workplace

We are a government hospital with a new leadership team.

Most of our employees are excited about the new vision and energy around long overdue project... and overlook any minor issues which inevitably happen in a new team.

However, there are 1 or 2 key stakeholders who have been very negative to the new management in informal "water cooler talk". Bad mouthing individuals and initiatives to demoralize junior staff. They do not talk about these issues openly in our weekly management meetings.

How can we remedy the situation?

6 Expert Insights

This negativity can be toxic. During change most people have concerns, fears and doubts AND there is a way to manage them to acknowledge and leverage them for positive resolution.There is some strong research that suggests the negative impact of unaddressed concerns can be catastrophic so it can not be allowed to persist. It can be stopped by transparent communication,  clarifying agreements and being vigilant about adhering to them:

Agreement 1: We encourage open communication and promote an environment of solution finding
Agreement 2: It is healthy to have concerns AND we need you to commit to support the direction we have set even if you disagree
Agreement 3: if you have concerns talk to the appropriate person who can answer questions and help take action. If they do not resolve - escalate appropriately - don't just complain to your peers
Agreement 4  when we hear appropriate concerns - we listen to the concerns then reframe them as commitments to make the organization successful and take action.  An example - an employee is concerned that the volume of change is creating a fearful environment. The reframe is the employee is committed to creating a safe environment where everyone can succeed. With this as the commitment it is easy to move to small steps to address the concern.

Change can be really tough for people and when fears drive the conversation they can quickly undermine important changes. Managers need to get ahead of the issues, creating a culture of openness. Then need to manage and lead the change. Part of the role is setting a vision of the future and the other part is putting concrete processes and agreements in place that allow people to move through the transition at the appropriate pace.

I wish you great success with the change and the difficult stakeholders.

It is tempting to want to intervene right away in this situation. Or even to confront the nay-sayers and give them an stern lecture about loyalty, teamwork, etc. But I would advise that in this situation, assuming it's still pretty early in the transition, not to go there. At least not yet.

Actions speak louder than words. Let your, and the management team's, deeds and conduct speak for themselves.  Don't expect folks to trust you right away; expect and resolve to earn their trust. Through consistent, ethical, accountable behavior one of two things will (may?) happen. One, the nay-sayers may finally be won over. Or two, they will keep nay-saying but find it harder and harder to find supporters and allies for a basically unsupportable position.

Another benefit of delaying direct intervention is that you allow others on the team, junior and senior staff, to step up and counter the doubters. If someone comes to you and reports another negative comment, ask them what they think should be done. Ask them whether it's really beneficial for you to step in. Ask them what they might do. In other words, let the team work through this without heavy-handed management or using forceful measures.

And yes, there may come a point in time (and maybe you're already there) when it becomes necessary to intervene more directly.  Still, the early steps will be more about inquiring rather than punishing. For example: "I understand from a number of people that you are unhappy with our progress, decision-making, etc. But I've never heard you speak these views in a management meeting.  I'm wondering why you have not spoken up in those meetings or come to me privately. In any case, I want to know more about how you feel and why."  

Such questions, expressed with curiosity, send a signal that dissonant points of view are welcome, but should be expressed out in the open. You also show that you're open to exploring angles that may have been overlooked.

Immediately sit down with these key stakeholders individually.  With an open mind, ask them to expand on their concerns over the changes.  Remember, sometimes the most loyal employees struggle with change the most because they have invested a lot in the way things are working.  Look for ways to involve them in the changes.  Also let them know you need their support.  If they don't want to jump on board, that is a different discussion.  I don't allow fence sitters when we come in to initiate change.  At some point, folks have to make a decision whether they can get behind the changes.  If they can't, I am very helpful in assisting them to leave.

IMUS - I make up stuff (or s*%t, depending on how bad it is) - is alive and thriving in most organizations, especially in new areas or when a new boss comes into town.    

I'm not one for long answers . . . and this is a pretty easy situation to diffuse.  Talk to the people, and find out what are their concerns (if any) - most of this comes from their (1) being fearful of their own jobs and attempting to make themselves appear more valuable, or (2) narcissistic behaviors / feelings of over-importance / attempting to make themselves more valuable in your eyes.    

Try having some small group meetings with employees to get their ideas on things - they'll be happy to talk with you if you are are truly interested in their opinions and are willing to put them into practice (see Michael Abrashoff's book "It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.")   This will make it pretty easy to find out if there is any truth to what they are saying, and you will find out that people support what they help create.    

When you set the example of the proper way to act, these problems (and the IMUS behaviors from the negative Nelsons and Nellies) go away (or you help them to go away by asking them to leave).  

You'll get past this - just don't buy into the negativity and find out what's really going on in the organization (which I'm sure you will anyway because you were savvy enough to ask the question).

Everyone above has given thoughtful answers to solving the problem of negative gossip...emphasizing open communication, participatory discussions, respect for the divergent opinions and focused problem solving. These are all appropriate solutions to circumstances which would benefit from a rational approach.

However, gossip is NOT rational.

It is anonymous, frequently vicious and behind people's backs. If you have a leadership role, it is normal for the gossip to smile your way or avoid looking at you. The gossip justify their behavior because they feel they've been cheated...of a corner office, a starring role...and they're bitter, seeking revenge for the insult they've suffered.

They create division. I call these people boils because they are full of pus and venom.  Anonymous and therefore invisible at first, they seek followers who are also feeling cheated, and together they share exaggerated tales of injury. These differences grow over time, fed by worst-case rumors and hateful talk, and become factions.  

As this process unfolds, the previously invisible gossip inevitably becomes known to peers and subordinates because they're seeking supporters. Consequently, they're visible and can be dealt with.

No organization - family, business or government - can function with such divisiveness because every decision is less a rational problem to solve, than it is an expression of loyalty.  The solution to this emotional disaster requires everyone to buy into these values:

1.  The welfare of the entire unit always outweighs the value of the parts.
2.  Trust is the only glue that allows for disagreements.  Your word is your bond.  No exceptions.
3.  Secrets are not acceptable.
4.  If you have a point of view, you are responsible for speaking out & speaking up.
5.  You may agree to disagree, but you are required to behave in line with decisions.
6.  If you break any of these rules you may be fired.  If firing is not possible, expect to end up in Siberia.

Good luck.

Gossip lives in the absence of answers, communication, transparency, etc. Often times in organizations, the reason that the "grapevine" grows is that there isn't anything being shared or it isn't shared frequently enough or shared consistently. The best way to deal with gossip is a commitment to communication. Not just any kind of communication though. It is telling people what is going on in a clear, concise, non-jargon laden way. Communication is like sunlight. It undermines the power of gossip.  

The two people that are spreading gossip have to be addressed immediately. Its likely they don't understand the future that is being created, don't see themselves in it or are frightened by it. The best thing to do in these situations is to ask them how they feel about the changes. Get them to talk about what their concerns are. Then give them a role in the development or implementation of the change. Don't let them sit on the sidelines formulating reasons why it won't work. Get them to focus their powers for good! If they are part of the solution, its hard for them to undermine it.