Direct Conversation

Everyone knows about the workplace “grapevine.” Managers and supervisors spend valuable time dealing with gossip, rumors, half-truths, and associates’ reactions to “stories” they have heard. The price of gossip in the workplace is substantial. For one thing, there is a loss of productivity because gossiping takes time—time originally intended for other assignments. Gossip promotes an ongoing cycle of more gossip and conspiring. Gossip chips away at the trust between team members, damages the ability of team members to rely on each other, and encourages negative conspiracies about coworkers.

Casual gossip is inherent in the culture of many companies, and as long as people work together, managers will have to deal with gossip. At its worst, gossip involves vicious rumors that create animosity among co-workers and disruptions in the workforce. Gossip is rarely a form of flattery, and in most circumstances, it lacks any real validity. It can even cause irreparable damage. Eliminating gossip from our environment is simple, but not easy. There is one rule that managers and associates can adopt that will stop almost all of the gossip in the workplace. The culture must thoroughly adopt a principle of taking all issues to the source. Along with this rule, you have to help others take their issues to the source. You want to stop the conspiring conversations by not participating. Make a commitment to stop listening to complaints that you can’t do anything about and to conversations that don’t directly affect you.

A commitment to stop listening to complaints you can’t do anything about and conversations that don’t directly affect you can have positive results on the culture of a company. Your commitment to not listen to complaints you can’t resolve, or to conversations that don’t directly concern you will require you to communicate effectively with your co-workers. For example, when someone starts to complain to you or talk with you about something that doesn’t directly affect you, simply say, “I apologize for interrupting you. But is this something that I can help solve? If not, please take the issue up directly with [name].” Then say, “When will you talk with him or her? When you are done, please let me know that it has been addressed.”

Once you make it a habit to communicate in this way, those around you will, over time, begin to understand. Eventually, they will stop telling you gossip. It is important that you be persistent and refuse to discuss any concern that you can’t resolve or that doesn’t involve you. Co-workers will understand that you are not judging them or the validity of their complaints. Rather, you are merely declining to participate in gossip and instead are directing them to a path that can actually lead to the resolution of their complaint. When you have to directly handle an issue with someone, it is important to be intentional about the communication. Direct conversation is a way to create open and honest communication. It results in the flow of vital feedback to organizational decision-makers. It is a way to intentionally move a conversation forward.

Honest Communication
People throughout the organization must engage in open and honest dialogues with whomever they need to for solving problems and settling disagreements. That way, any time there is a problem or complaint, rather than gossiping or “simmering”, each person does something productive about it. Those who can help get involved solving problems and creating the future as resentments fade away. The alternatives to open and honest communication are not pretty. In those traditional organizations where closed communication predominates, this is what happens: confusion, blame, withdrawal, avoidance, manipulation, conspiracies against others, behind-the-back gossip, rudeness, power plays, political maneuvering, indifference, and other victim–aggressor behavior. In contrast, an organization that effectively demonstrates open and honest communication teaches something wonderful to new people who come on board. Real issues are dealt with and direct conversation is practiced as the norm. A month or two in an organization with this pattern of relationship is often enough for a new associate to learn the value of openness and honesty in relationships.

Charlie Sheppard is President of Sheppard Partners, Inc., a company on the forefront of next-generation behavioral assessment technologies. Sheppard Partners is an organizational development consulting company that focuses its efforts on helping organizations create high performance cultures. He brings experience in organizational development, specializing in the assessment, design, and delivery of development programs with an emphasis on strategic alignment, leadership development, team development, and negotiation skills. By developing innovative technologies and delivering creative solutions, Sheppard Partners is an active partner in the selection process, in the creation of effective teams, and in ongoing organizational development. Charlie coordinates the activities of Sheppard Partners consultants and serves the firm as the lead developer of assessment technologies and courseware.

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