Look Who’s Talking: Stirring the Pot

We all know that people talk. My youngest explained to me this weekend why three friends together will never work. We had just finished breakfast and in a matter of fact manner she let all of us know she possessed an epiphany that we would all benefit from if we listened carefully. Basically, when there are three close friends, it is inevitable that two are going to gang up on the third from time to time. The roles of attacker and recipient may change each time, but the outcome is generally the same. The process normally starts by a more vocal or dominant member of the group accrediting some statement to an absent group member. The statement may or may not be true, but it usually involves something negative being said about the person being spoken to and it is typically presented as a secret told to the speaker. This begins a cycle of “he said-she said” back and forth. Now the person that something is said about feels compelled to enlighten the speaker to things he or she has heard from the absent friend as well. Before long, this ping pong process overtakes the one on one relationship of all three and can lead to very hurt feelings.

Although we might fondly look back on this story as the domain of children, it happens in the adult work place as well. It not only happens between employees on a regular basis, but it happens between a supervisor and his or her employees. Once employees turn on each other and become focused on proving who is the most knowledgeable of the organization, closest aligned with one side or another, and most trustworthy of gossip, hard feelings develop and productivity falls. Numerous surveys have shown that good relations with coworkers are a primary predictor of engagement and job satisfaction among employees. When these events occur in your workplace it is important to understand what is going on and how to deal with it.

What are some of the common workplace causes of this fire? The most common themes outside of personal characteristics that lead to multiple-party backbiting include discussions of:
• Who is the better performer?
• Who does the boss like more?
• Who has highest pay or best assignments?
• Who is the biggest of a “suck up” to the boss?

Every workplace produces a certain amount of gossip. Each of us can probably identify the information maven or gossip hub from our current and previous work places. Someone in each work unit takes on the responsibility of keeping up with the happenings of each team member and communicating that information in a variety of ways.

How do you combat this destructive behavior?

• Communicate expectations
• Check your communication
• Check your managers

Communicate Expectations

As strange as it sounds, most of us do not communicate our expectations related to personal interaction in the workplace. We assume that as adults, everyone knows how to act like an adult and will on a consistent basis. Instead, we move immediately to work task and performance expectations. This is a grave mistake. Acceptable personal behavior varies by person and rarely operates with similar definitions of terms. Robert Fulghum captures many of these simple principles in his All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Treating coworkers how you want to be treated can go a long way.

Check Your Communication

An environment devoid of regular and meaningful communication is fertile ground for gossip and assumptions. If you have set expectations and in-fighting still exists, make sure you have address the common questions listed above. If employees are left to answer these questions on their own there are going to disagreements without any form of central authority. Make sure that you have set clear organizational, team, and personal expectations, communicate on results, and discuss how things can improve.

Check Your Managers

Periodically, it is important to make sure that your managers are strong managers. Assess their performance and provide a positive and “face saving” way to improve. At a minimum, a manager has to communicate well and treat people fairly if he or she wishes to diminish the level of internal conflict. Just as communication vacuum can lead to more conflict, a lack of leadership results in the same outcome.

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