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But gossiping feels good!

Gossip can be so disruptive to individuals and organisations as a whole. It may start out with innocence, but it can turn toxic quickly.

Why is gossip so pervasive?

Gossip happens naturally; it is a human trait.

Sharon has challenged herself to make the month-end presentation. It is her first time in front of this critical audience, she is well-prepared but nervous. Her presentation goes well, if not quite Oscar material. But Ola, whose work was not acknowledged appropriately in the presentation, focuses on Sharon’s nervousness, and finds all the faults of her talk. On Friday at the pub, Ola rants to her friend Ben about how completely clueless and incompetent Sharon is and how she will NEVER use her on any of her projects. Ben later asks someone else about Sharon’s inadequacies and a rumour spreads; Sharon is suddenly seen as less than capable in her project work. It damages her reputation.

It is normal to get frustrated with other people and we are not going to like everyone we work with; inevitably there will be clashes of style and preferences.

When we experience a clash (even if it is based on our own poor interpretation of reality), the brain generates stress chemicals that we then need to offload. One way to do so is to vent our frustration with a person we trust. But that person may share what was said, maybe even with good intentions, and a version of the message spreads to another person and then another and another, each time getting a little further from the truth.

So why does it feel so good?

Gossiping can feel great. When we connect with someone we like and we share an opinion, we create a sense of belonging and connection. It doesn’t really matter what the topic is – we are agreeing and connecting and we get a happy surge of dopamine and possibly some oxytocin that has us enjoy a feeling of trust and connection. This is our brain is telling us, Yes! Do more of that! Connecting is good!

If on top of that, you add anger, a shared desire to get back at someone, or a passion to right some wrongs together, more dopamine will flow and the bond strengthens: it’s you and me against them!  This is a very powerful human force and it drives a lot of gossip and hurtful rumours.

When we don’t have the right tools

We will be especially susceptible to this force when we feel powerless or less than confident. For example: when we don’t feel we have the right or position to challenge another person, when we feel that challenging them would put us at risk in some way or when we do not quite know how to give feedback.

What else could Ola have done when she felt so slighted by Sharon’s talk?

She could have talked to Sharon, helped to soothe her nerves and become a better presenter, or help her understand why it is important to properly represent her colleagues in a talk like that. But that would be harder and much more uncomfortable than having a rant with her friend.

By default, the brain wants the more comfortable path. If we can either get some dopamine by sharing frustrations with a friend, or do the stressful work of preparing for and delivering feedback, the brain will nudge us towards the option that creates a quick and easy dopamine hit.

Unfortunately, the dopamine choice does not help change a situation that may truly need to be addressed. In fact, gossip like this may lead to a toxic working environment.

How can you address gossip?

When gossip is getting the best of your culture, know that it is likely a signal that people are not comfortable having the conversations they need to have. People might not feel psychologically safe to have hard conversations or they might not have been trained well enough to give feedback or call others out on poor behaviour.

Here are some ways forward

Leaders:

  • Make a clear decision that you want to do reduce or eliminate gossip
  • Investigate repetitive gossip – there may be some truth in it that you need to address

Organisation level:

  • Help people understand how hurtful gossip is
  • Create a safe arena in which to vent (e.g., a manager or coach or an unread email address)
  • Train people to give feedback and help them recognise that having the more difficult conversation may result in better connection and more dopamine down the road
  • Train people to call out gossip and support them when they do

Individuals:

  • Discipline yourself to not gossip; find other outlets rather than speaking negatively about a colleague to another colleague, regardless of how good or fun it feels in the moment
  • Find the courage to call it out when others gossip (and trust that you will be supported by leaders)

The brain has clear tendencies and preferences which drive our behaviour – both constructive and destructive. Learning about these preferences can help you create an organisation with more trust and overall positivity. Rewired to Relate is the place to start.

What is Rewired to Relate?

We offer a free one-hour webinar to learn more about how the Rewired to Relate programme can help you, your team and your organisation work better together.

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