For most of us, the idea of "workplace violence" conjures up images of physical harm. But there is another form of workplace violence that is just as dangerous and insidious - and that is gossip in the workplace.
Gossip is any language that would cause another harm, pain, or confusion that is used outside the presence of another for whom it is intended.
As a facilitator, trainer and coach, I've been in numerous workplace situations where gossip was the norm. Curiously enough, in these same organizations, most folks I spoke to would say that gossip was something they disapproved of.
Even after formal meetings to discuss the "gossip issue", after attending sensitivity workshops designed to reduce and eliminate pernicious gossip, after mandating "there be no more gossip" and after pledging to have more honest, open and direct communication (whereby folks verbalized a "commitment" to speak directly to a colleague in order to eliminate gossip), many of these same individuals still consciously continued to engage in the practice of gossip.
Because gossip is a form of attack which often arises from an individual's conscious or unconscious fears. For some people, a commitment "not to gossip" is easily diluted by their fears, anxieties and concerns about what their life might be like if they stopped gossiping: "Who would I be then?" What would I do?" "How would I be one of the guys…?" "Would I have to eat lunch alone?" "Would I lose all my friends?"
Some broader definitions of gossip not only relate to negative remarks, but even extend to positive or neutral remarks that are focused on making conversation that is centered on the activities or behaviors of others, again, outside the presence of that person.
Stopping the practice of talking about others can be a big challenge for many people because they're simply not able to be authentic in life. As a result, many revert to gossiping as a self-defense mechanism, using it as a self-protection device so they never have to be vulnerable, or disclose information about their feelings or emotions, or open up.
In other words, these folks use gossip as a strategy for protecting against revealing their real selves. They have walked around for so long wearing masks and assuming false identities that opening up and revealing who they really, really are is frightening and threatening.
So an inner desire to be authentic and sincere and not gossip has to emerge from a person's deep sense of integrity, as well as from a conscious, heart-felt desire to be harmless in the context of their life and in their interactions with others.
Without this profound inner commitment to harmlessness, an injunction to "stop gossiping" can simply trigger ego-based behaviours. Thus individuals continue to find excuses (since there are never "reasons") to gossip.
In addition, there are those folks who want or need to be liked and accepted and who want or need others to feel comfortable with them. So they too continue to engage in gossip when it is going on around them because they don't want to feel like the odd one out.
Since gossip is a fear-based behaviour, the need for self-protection often proves to be greater than any apparent commitment not to engage in it. This self-protection brings with it a kind of pseudo-safety and false sense of well-being that might otherwise be in jeopardy; so people continue to gossip so that they can keep the focus on someone else, rather than themselves.
For others, the issue is not so much that they're consciously being self-protective; it's when they DON'T KNOW they are being self-protective that is critical.
- Why am I engaging in gossiping or supporting others who do so?
- What does gossiping get me?
- Is there another way to get this same result without harming another?
- Does gossiping align with my personal and my organization's espoused values around respecting and honoring people?
- Would I repeat this gossip directly to the person it's about?
- Would I want to be quoted on TV or in the papers or in the company newsletter?
- Would I encourage my children to engage in the behavior of gossip?
- Would I engage in it if it were about a relative or personal friend?
- Am I expressing my authenticity, sincerity, and integrity when I gossip?
- Does gossiping match my commitments to my self and others?
- Do I feel ethical when I'm gossiping?
Thus many people are unable to take responsibility for their behavior. As a result, they begin to look outside themselves (blame, find fault, complain, whine...) when they fail to take responsibility for themselves, since they don't have the self-awareness to go inside to explore what's up. So, they gossip and look to find some reason for doing so.
The upshot of all this is that commitments not to gossip often dissipate rather quickly in the real world.
Even if someone does appear to be upholding the "no-gossip rule" outwardly, they might still be gossiping in their thoughts, sending out hostile signals to others and just being "quiet" about it. And this covert behavior can be even more dangerous and insidious.
Unless we truly explore our inner behavior (mental models, self-images, ego constructs, super-ego judgments, attendant beliefs, feelings and emotions), we cannot be free from both the urge and the habit of gossip.
We can stop gossiping in the workplace only when a real inner desire to so emerges from a deep sense of integrity and authenticity - and that means taking conscious steps to be harmless in the context of our life and in our interactions with others.
Gossip in the workplace is a form of violence. To be free from inflicting this violence on others we need to explore and heal the split between our outer selves and inner selves. Only then can we live honest, sincere and responsible lives, both within the workplace and outside it.