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Something to talk about

reporter 6 minute read

Small businesses and close-knit industries are notorious for chit-chat, gasbagging and gossiping. But how much is too much? AdviseHer looks at how to handle gossip in a business context

Some people have got gossiping down to an art form – so much so that it’s almost a method of survival.

Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of gossip and innuendo. Some business experts, however, will tell you that because it’s natural for human beings to talk to one another, in their view, a little bit of gossip is okay – particularly if everyone is doing it.

But not everyone is so sure – and some even go so far as to label gossip as criminal. Dr Peter Vadja, a cognitive psychologist, has referred to gossip as a form of “workplace violence”. Gossip, according to Dr Vadja, is a defence mechanism to protect people from revealing their ‘true self’.

Many people would claim gossip is okay – as long as it’s true. After all, how can you get into trouble for disseminating or repeating fact?

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In their book Rumor Psychology, professors Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Borida argue that 95 per cent of rumours in the workplace turn out to be true.

Does that mean gossip in small businesses and at industry events only crosses the line five per cent of the time?

Or is there more to workplace and industry gossip than just the question of fact or fiction?

Where does the line lie?

James Adonis, employee engagement specialist and managing director of Team Leaders, tells AdviseHer that gossip crosses the line on plenty of occasions – and most people tend to know when they’ve gone too far.

“The line is if gossip is untrue,” he says, “because then it becomes rumour and innuendo. It only becomes destructive if it’s malicious or if it offends other people, or if it attacks other people.

“That’s really when it becomes a problem.”

Industry events that bring together people from small businesses, such as brokerage groups, are known for generating a bit of chit-chat about who has been doing what, which company is writing the biggest volumes, who might be poached by a different aggregator or who might win big at the next industry awards program – and that’s even before people start getting personal!

Many commentators argue that it is part of human nature to talk about other people, speculate on motivations and predict outcomes.

Mr Adonis is not so sure. “I’m not sure if it’s a human inclination to want to talk about other people,” he says. “It’s more that people want to share with each other the things they’ve got in common.

“So, if all of us attend the same football club, we’re going to want to talk about the ins and outs and the secrets and the not-so-secrets of the football club.

“The same principle applies in the workplace, in industries, with your family or whatever it might be. It’s just one method that people use to connect with each other, based upon things that they all happen to be
interested in.”

Small businesses, big talk

Aside from at industry events, gossip can also thrive within small businesses, something of which many brokers and financial services professionals are well aware.

Mr Adonis says gossip can get out of control in this context for a variety of reasons.

“Gossip could be occurring because employees feel alienated from management, so they feel like they have to gossip about stuff in order to feel informed,” he says.

“Or it could be that they don’t trust management. So because they don’t trust management, they’ve got to use their own sources in order to get information.”

Mr Adonis says people could also be letting gossip take control of the workplace if they feel insecure about their job or within their organisation, “and so to make themselves feel less insecure, they gossip as a way of having power or exerting influence”.

In cases such as these, Mr Adonis says it is important to try and find the underlying cause of the gossip, rather than simply trying to shut it down.

He recalls having a client, a financial services company, at the beginning of the global financial crisis. The company was going through a merger and a re-structure, so there was plenty to talk about.

“When that kind of event happens, of course everybody in the company wants to talk about it,” he says. “Everybody wants to gossip about it because it’s going to affect their jobs and it’s going to affect the trust they have in the organisation.

“It makes people feel alienated when bosses are in meetings all the time. It makes people uneasy.”

Mr Adonis also recalls that the CEO in the middle of it all put a ban on employees talking in the workplace about the merger or the re-structure “as a way of quelling the gossip”.

“All this did was make people feel even more alienated; it made people feel even more distrustful; it made them feel even more insecure,” he says.

The move stopped people from talking about the issues within the workplace, but the gossip and speculation thrived outside the office premises.

The third party distribution channel is not so different, and has seen more than its fair share of speculation and change.

Whether it’s on a small scale, with people speculating about which businesses will merge and why, or on a larger scale with people questioning why industry bodies have reached certain conclusions, there is always something to talk about.

According to Mr Adonis, one way to stop a healthy level of gossip descending into something unsustainable and damaging is to share information as much as possible.

This tactic can also be implemented in smaller businesses that are experiencing change and growth.

“It’s important for business managers and industry leaders to understand that if they don’t provide enough information, employees will create it themselves – and that’s when gossip turns into rumour,” he says.

“So, if there are a lot of gaps in information, or things don’t make sense, or managers make decisions without justifying why those decisions were put into place, then employees will come up with their own imaginative reasons.”

But it’s also important for people to stick to their promises, he adds.

“If you make any commitments, you should do your best to abide by these commitments and lead by example,” he says.

This, in turn, will give people less reason to talk about you in a negative way and speculate on your perceived failures.

Drawing the line

Plenty of people love to gossip, yet there are also those who feel uncomfortable and aren’t quite sure how to deal with it on a regular basis.

According to Mr Adonis, it need not be complicated and indeed, many people ‘over-think’ it – you can simply opt out and not participate, he says.

If you’re concerned about a colleague or an industry peer taking things too far, then you do have options.

“You can take your colleague aside and chat to them about how they are being perceived by others as ‘a gossiper’. Often, people are more likely to listen to others’ advice if the advice doesn’t come from a selfish perspective.

“So, if it comes from a perspective that emphasises ‘I’m telling you this because I want you to be more successful’, or ‘I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to look bad’, then people pay more attention and might take that advice on board more readily.”

Unfortunately, if you’re a manager, dealing with gossip is just part and parcel of what you have signed up for, Mr Adonis says.

“If you’re the manager, you might just have to suck it up. People are going to gossip about you because you’re the boss.”

Instead of focusing on the negatives, people should focus on building relationships that make others less inclined to cast them in a negative light and spread malicious gossip.

Now that’s something to get people talking ...

Something to talk about
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