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Working with Toxic Gossip

03 Nov 2021 4:00 PM | Anonymous

Dear Sophia,

I know someone who is facing a problem with the return to in-person work. While everyone was remote, the teamwork on his team was amazing and the team functioned very well. Now that there is in-person work, however, he notices that unhelpful and destructive chatter has returned. It's like everyone was mission-focused while remote, but now that they are seeing each other again, the focus is sometimes on the team members/on interpersonal issues instead. Those chattering don't think they are gossiping and they don't think they are behaving in toxic ways. They think they are discussing work matters with people they trust and would reject the notion that they are engaging in toxic behaviors -- but they are. He knows he can't change others, and that lecturing his colleagues won't be productive. What can he do to improve this situation for himself and for the whole team? 

Sincerely, 

Don’t Want to Work with Toxicity

Dear Don’t Want to Work with Toxicity,

I’m glad you’re writing on behalf of “someone you know” but I hope you don’t mind me talking to you directly on the off chance that someone happens to be you (wink wink). No matter who is asking this question, it’s relevant to any of us who have ever had the delight of working in an office setting with other people. Let’s start with the basics. Offices are made up of human beings. Human beings are naturally social creatures. We connect and interact on multiple levels in numerous ways throughout our lives, both personally and professionally. So, it’s no wonder that sometimes the lines get blurred in personal and professional boundaries. But the pandemic  laid down a clear demarcation between the two. When we entered a Zoom room at work for a meeting, it was clearly business. If you called a colleague to catch up on their latest family vacation, that was personal. Working from our little bubbles, we kept everything in the separate lanes because there were no accidental interactions.

But as you rightly point out, going back to work in person means we are jumping back into the lawless frontier of office politics. Now keep in mind, what you might be seeing at this moment is an almost frantic overload of human connection where everyone is so hungry for socializing that the balance is heavily skewed towards chatter. That will settle out eventually as we all get back into the routine of normal work behavior so perhaps a bit of patience is called for here.

That said, there is a difference between engagement with colleagues and toxic gossip-mongering. I’d like to think that as professionals we all know the difference, but that would be naïve and clearly you are witnessing this firsthand. So, here’s what I’d suggest: Jump into the fray. Trust me, I know this is not the answer you wanted, but the reality is, if you want to change the environment in your workplace to one that does not promote this kind of disruptive and damaging behavior, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.

You’re correct that lecturing colleagues will not be effective. So instead of lecturing, join in the conversation, engage in the circles, and elevate the dialogue. When topics veer into gossip, gently suggest, in a good-natured, light-hearted way, that perhaps we don’t want to go down that road because “hey, Charlie’s a good guy deep down and it might be that he’s just really overloaded right now…” You can also jump in with suggestions for improvements like “yes, it does sometimes feel like Monique creates a real bottleneck in projects, but I don’t think she means to—I wonder if there’s a productive way we could work with her on that?” You see what’s happening here? You are being called upon to be the bigger person—to guide others away from the toxic cliff to more stable and productive ground.

If that feels like too onerous a task, then I would suggest you take the complete opposite approach and find a way to reframe the environment for yourself. Eckhart Tolle talks about situations being completely neutral, neither good nor bad. He says it is only your own thoughts about it that make it positive or negative. Perhaps this is an opportunity to hone those skills and simply remove yourself from letting it get to you, creating an environment where you simply expect the best from your colleagues, clearly communicate what you need from them, and if you don’t get it (because they are too busy gossiping) you can suggest to your supervisor or your team that a renewed focus on efficiency and productivity would be helpful.

Either way this is going to involve a choice on your part. You can’t fix other people, but you can model the behavior you’d like to see and/or you can move yourself into a Zen space where you’re not distracted or irritated by the world around you. No matter which you choose, these are life skills that need practicing but will serve you well forever.

Confidentially Yours,

 Sophia

P.S. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I’m curious what the amazing community of educators reading this post has to say. Chime in, folks! What thoughts do you have for Asking for a Friend? Share your thoughts on the Global Leadership League’s LinkedIn page. Have a question for Sophia yourself, ask here!

Please note: This response is provided for informational purposes only. The information contained herein is not legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice or legal opinions of a licensed professional. Contact a personal attorney or licensed professional to obtain appropriate legal advice or professional counseling with respect to any particular issue or problem.

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