Monday, 21 September 2015

Communication: Gossip and The Rumour Mill

The current volatility in the Chinese markets has put me in mind of the rumour mill that can impact on people at work. 

It feels, listening to the telly and following the economic situation in the press, on news sites and Twitter that the world could talk itself into another recession.  The Dow Jones drops like a stone and panic ensues.  Oh, I know there are all kinds of justifiable reasons for concern (the Chinese economy is slowing down, blah, blah, blah) but it also seems that as a species we are primed for the worst and therefore the worst happens.

I’m simply pointing out that we do seem to be drawn to disaster and are willing to believe the worst often without question. 

This is particularly true on a less global scale: in our offices, in families, among friends, our ears gravitate to the bad news rumours.

Rumours really are a form of gossip and humans do derive a great deal of pleasure from gossip, whether it’s about colleagues, pop stars, royalty or the neighbour across the road.  Of course, most gossip isn’t good news gossip; it’s usually something not very nice that puts the person being gossiped about in a not very good light.

I bet that most people who are reading this will have turned up at least once on the first day of a new job and been told something about someone you’d barely met or hadn’t even met at that point.  It certainly happened to me:  I was warned about this one woman who, I was told on my first day, was unfriendly, difficult and didn’t take part in any company events.

I had to pass her office on the way to mine and I found for the first few days that I barely muttered an hello and she barely muttered one back.

Towards the end of the week I finally woke up from my gossip-induced trance and thought, “I don’t even know this woman and I’m acting as though she has done something mean to me.”  The next day I bought a box of cookies and instead of scurrying by her office, I stopped, introduced myself properly and gave her the bikkies.  We chatted away for 15 minutes and I learned more about her in that time than most people had who’d been working alongside her for years, including some serious health problems that occasionally made her grouchy.

It was a great and very important lesson for me to learn about how easy it was for me to be swayed by what other people said before I could form my own judgement, come to my own opinions.

The rumour mill and gossip, though they are inevitable, also have the power to be deeply harmful and hurtful.  People can talk themselves into believing anything, from a new global financial crisis to the unfriendliness of a co-worker.

It would be great if every time we heard a rumour or some gossip about someone, we were able to challenge the gossiper.  It would be great if we could stopper our ears or simply ignore what was being said.

However, that’s unrealistic given what I said at the beginning about human nature.

There are, however, other steps you can take to mitigate the out of control wild-fire impact the rumour mill can have.

If you find yourself swept up in the energy that’s often created when people fan the flames of hearsay and tittle-tattle, take a moment to ask yourself if there’s any evidence that you’ve personally experienced that might mean the gossip is true. Conversely, is there any evidence that the opposite is true?

Like me, once I snapped out of it, you could be pro-active and seek out the person others are talking about, share a cuppa, go to lunch or an after-work drink. Make an effort to connect with them so you can genuinely form your own opinion.

Finally, if you do find that the rumour is just that, a rumour, you could lead a counter-gossip movement, pointing out positive things about your talked-about colleague, questioning the gossiper when they start sniping and becoming an advocate.

You could encourage other colleagues to form their own judgements and when new people start reinforce the positive traits of all your co-workers.

Gossip will never completely go away; you can be a kinder, more empathetic colleague by avoiding the rumour mill and modelling fairness and acceptance.  


Check out Impact Factory’s range of Communication One Day, Two Day and Five Day Elite Communication courses.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory


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