Dear Crucial Skills,
My boss and I have weekly one-on-ones to stay up to date on ongoing projects and initiatives. However, more often than not, my boss uses this time to gossip about her subordinates, coworkers, and superiors. On occasion, I ask, “What does this have to do with me?” but it never ends well, so I am forced to listen.
I’ve also repeatedly asked my boss to stop gossiping about me to my coworkers, but without fail, after my boss finishes a one-on-one with someone else, they run up to my desk with a tidbit about me.
I want to address this once and for all, but I also want to keep my job so I know I must be delicate. I’d like to have a better relationship with my boss, but can’t help but keep the boundaries high and thick given the circumstances.
Seeking a Trusting Relationship
Before I get to some advice, I’m going to share a few words about issues that affect job satisfaction. My comments here are not based on a scientific study, but on more than thirty years of consulting with organizations and teams. I hope that at the end of this, you’ll see why I started here.
It’s important to make a distinction between a “friend” and an “accomplice.” A friend is someone who helps you; an accomplice is someone who helps you get in trouble. It is often hard to tell the difference. In the moment, when someone encourages you to do something or engages you in a conversation, it is difficult to foresee the consequences. So, what seems to be a friendly gesture can become the act of an accomplice. Over the years, in hundreds of organizations, I’ve seen numerous ways in which colleagues become accomplices. Two categories are clearly at the top of the list.
First, colleagues go to silence. There is an epidemic of silence in organizations all around the world, and the consequences are severe. Problems aren’t addressed, standards are lowered, wasteful practices are continued, and so on.
When people don’t speak up about crucial issues, they become accomplices. Being silent can be a private, individual act because each person has to weigh his or her options and decide if speaking up is the best option. More often than not, the person chooses caution over candor and so problems persist or fester. Peer pressure is also involved in a person’s decision to remain silent. Colleagues become accomplices when they make suggestions like, “We don’t bring things like that up.” Or, “You do that and it will limit your career.” Or, “Upper management doesn’t listen, ever!” Beware of similar comments.
The second way colleagues become accomplices is by gossiping. Gossip can be identified when you or someone you see talks about a person but not to the person. Almost everyone identifies gossip when they see it or hear it, and yet sometimes this gossip is labeled as something more positive like, “I was just venting.” Or, “I was just talking with a friend.” Gossip clearly comes with many negative consequences. Trust and respect are diminished—this is true of the team and it is ultimately true of the gossiper. In addition, the time people spend gossiping is non-value-added time. Work isn’t getting done. And with weaker relationships, future work will be harder to do.
My point is that you are right to concern yourself with these issues. Silence can be deadly. Gossip is hurtful. So what do you do when you face these immediate, costly issues?
I’ll start with a common indirect strategy people use particularly when they don’t feel personally capable to hold a direct conversation or they don’t think they have a strong enough relationship to hold a direct conversation. This strategy is known as the “ground rule” strategy. Ground rules are specific commitments a team agrees to work on that will help them function more effectively. This is done in a small group by brainstorming and it ends with a couple of commitments.
Ground rules help clarify needed behaviors and define boundaries. For example, I’ve seen the following ground rules:
- If we have an issue with a team member, we will talk to that person directly, privately, and in a professional way.
- In our conversations about our colleagues, we will be positive and supportive.
- If someone talks to us about a colleague in a way that is not positive, we will encourage him or her to enact rule #1.
These ground rules are not a panacea. They need to be modified when necessary. You should address these rules in team meetings by asking two questions—”How are we doing?” and “What could we do better?” Ground rules create clear expectations that can positively influence behavior and can make holding others accountable more likely. One of the benefits of this strategy is that it engages the boss and the whole team. You don’t have to hold a dozen conversations over time. You might want to see if your boss will lead this conversation. If you can, you are more likely to deal with the issue “once and for all.”
Finally, I would like to offer some advice for a more direct conversation. I talked about silence and gossip at the beginning of my response because, when you talk to your boss or your colleagues, you will need to explain what you are trying to achieve. What are the benefits, and what are the costs you are trying to avoid? I hope my descriptions will help.
As you’ve noted that you’ve had several conversations with your boss, I think you need to make sure you address the real topic. It could be gossip is not the main issue; it could be that when you have a talk and your boss agrees to take some actions, she doesn’t. The real topic is that you see a pattern of breaking commitments and that is affecting your working relationship. If you share your intentions—what you are trying to do and what you are not trying to do—and then share the facts that you see, you will have the right issues on the table.
I talked about ground rules because I think you have a group problem and you need a solution that will include the group. You may want to practice with a partner or friend before you address the issue again. But you need to address it.
I wish you well,