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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Mauricio Díaz Nissen

Gossip, group dynamics and work environment

I have had the misfortune of working with groups where gossip is rampant. Trying to deal with these situations is horrible and difficult, but I learned a couple of things on how to deal with it by trying different solutions, failing, revising, and going though it again.

Gossip harms the group dynamics as interferes with the group work both personally and professionally. Moreover, it can harm people's mental health, can create deep working environment problems and even preventing products to be finished. You can help stopping this and fostering good group dynamics both as a teammate and as a group leader.

1. The most important rule is 'Ask, don't judge'. Before you start judging your teammates or your leader, ask them about the particular issues that are bothering you. For example, if you feel a teammate is not working much, ask them if they are having problems with their life that are interfering with their work.

2. 'Stop the gossip'. Gossip can come in two forms, as a personal life gossip, or as a work related gossip. A personal life gossip can come, for example, from seeing a team member drunk at a bar, or knowing that they have psychological problems. If a colleague is spreading information of other team members personal life, ask them not to do it. This is specially important if you feel the information will affect how other people relate to the person in question, if it can make the person feel bad, or can interfere with the work they are doing. Remind the gossiper that every person has the right to keep their personal life, and if they want to share information they can do it when they feel they are prepared.

A work related gossip, can be for example sharing information that a person is stealing work material from the office, or that the group leader is giving extra work to someone. If a colleague is spreading these, remind them that there are ways to deal with this, for example asking the person about their behaviour and/or confronting them, or filling up a formal complaint.

If you are a leader and a person comes with gossip about other team members, this is more delicate as inquiring about the gossip can reveal the identity of the person spreading information, thus fostering insecurities within the group towards this person. As a leader there are a couple of things you can do. The first thing is, 'Stop the gossip'. If the gossip is personal, remember to tell the person that 'if it is not work related or interfering with the work, then it is not your problem'. People have their right to use their spare time as they wish and even to voice their complaints (including those about the leader) without being judged or squealed on. If the gossip is about work, tell the person that even though the information could be helpful, the fact that they are telling this to you as 'a secret' makes it impossible for you to solve the problem without harming more the group dynamics. Ask the person talking to you to tell the people involved to voice their problem directly.

3. If a teammate is complaining about the group dynamics or about the leader, 'Do not rat on them'. Rating on someone is already proving disloyalty to the group and trying to get favouritism from the leader. Moreover, rating on someone cannot help the leader solving a situation without risking your relationship with the group. The best you can do in these situations is remind the person that 'problems that are not voiced cannot be solved', and that they should talk with the leader directly so they can be aware of the existence of a problem and work it out.

4. If a team, or a big part of the team is complaining about the group dynamics or the leader, 'Do not rat on your teammates with the leader', and 'Do not spread gossips about the leader with your teammates'. Group dynamics are difficult, and there are different types of leaders and leadership. Rating on your colleagues with your leader will create the same situation as the point 3. While spreading gossips about the leader will only make the group more divisive and discontent, making any problem more difficult to solve. Voice your disconformity with your leader as a group, call for a meeting, or propose yourself to voice the problems the group are facing in an assertive way, without judging or blaming anyone.

5. Assertiveness is the key word. Whenever you try to express a problem, try your best to do it on a proactive way. Do not complain and blame; instead, make a list with the problems, phrase them in a polite but direct way, including how the problem is affecting the group and possible solutions. Do not express your problem invaded with emotions, but instead try to keep a cool head.

6. As a leader, set up the rules from the beginning, and do not fear to reframe your work dynamics. As it turn out, not all people work in the same way, and not all people like the same type of leadership. This is particularly important when working with multicultural or interdisciplinary groups. Some people see direct leadership as a strong leadership, while others see it as dictatorial. Some people see a flexible leadership as having a weak leader, while others see it as sympathetic. Set the rules on how your leadership will be and why; and how problems should be tackle in the case they arise.

7. Instruct your team on how to complain. If you are a boss and not a leader, you probably won't like people to be complaining to you and you probably just enjoy the power of your position, but if you are a real leader, you want to be not over the team, but a part of the team. Make your team aware that they can talk to you, that they are not below you and you are not their enemy. Ensure they can talk with you about what is affecting them, both from their work and their personal life (that can interfere with work). Generate rapport with your team and listen to them without punishing or judging them, but trying to come to agreements.

If the group is not voicing their problems to you, it can be that the framing of the work dynamics was not correct or clearly understood. It might also be that your are behaving like (or your team sees you as) a boss and not a leader, and are afraid of you. If that is the case, you should reflect on yourself, your communication, attitude, behaviours, and thoughts towards the team members. But it might also be the case that there are cultural or disciplinary preconceptions or misunderstandings. If you are a leader and you are experiencing any of these, a re-frame of your work dynamics might be needed.

And last, but not least, remember the three filters when you feel like gossiping

- Is it true?

- Is it necessary?

- is it kind (or at leas phrase it in an assertive way)?

If any of the answers is not, the information should probably not be out.

And let's add a three more!

- Does it help the group dynamics?

- Does it help with the work environment?

- Does it help solving existing problems?

If not, rather keep your mouth shut, talk with your psychologist about your opinions and judgements, and let your teammates work together and be happy.

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