Gossip has become a guilty pleasure in the workplace many can’t resist. The challenges many leaders face is creating a culture of inclusion and collaboration. Creating a culture of inclusion is built on a foundation of bringing everyone together to create a sense of belonging. TeamWorks recently conducted a survey finding “86% of gossip was related to corporate challenges.”
If gossip is common in the workplace it promotes a culture of toxicity and reduces inclusiveness. Having friends or a group of people to hang out with at work can positively impact overall happiness, relieve stress and increase productivity. Where it becomes toxic is when a group of employees come together to complain, gossip and commiserate about internal activities and events.
Venting isn’t uncommon in the workplace. In fact, many leaders encourage employees to speak up to prevent issues from festering. Venting about challenges allows solutions to be found quickly while releasing stress from the impacted employee.
The difference between healthy venting and gossiping is, venting sessions are meant to find ideas and solutions to address their current challenges. Those who gossip have little interest in resolving their problems or finding solutions to improve their situation.
Very few workplace cliques consist of employees who are high performers. The reason is due to the members focusing more on the clique than on the company. The energy they put into negative behaviors and communications take away from them being productive and engaged in their job.
Here are four tactics leaders can learn to destroy toxic cliques and promote a culture of inclusiveness and collaboration
Dismantle Toxic Cliques
Cliques are tight-knit groups actively excluding others while friendship circles welcome new people. CareerBuilder found 43% of employees “say their office is populated by cliques”. At the core, cliques are formed when people don’t feel safe and are desperately trying to fit in. Diane Gottsmann says cliques create hostile work environments by “saying bad things about one colleague in an attempt to win favor from another” causing those on the outside to feel less than worthy and unimportant.
Whispered conversations taking place cause office cliques to do more harm than good. They promote gossip and ostracize others making them feel unwelcome. A recent Zendesk article mentioned, “millennials believe office friendships have a significant impact on their happiness” and overall satisfaction. Yet, according to an infographic made by Point Park University, “an astonishing 53% of workers said their employment brings no happiness to their lives” due to poor morale, gossip and not feeling included.
When employees feel like outcasts in their place of work due to gossip, it decreases morale and productivity making them less engaged. Employees who engage in gossip, rumor spreading, backstabbing and workplace politics are poisoning the company culture by siphoning negative energy into it. This not only harms the internal atmosphere but it negatively impacts the company’s bottom line.
How to fix it: Companies can derail toxic cliques by bringing awareness to them, reorganizing teams, if possible, and promoting an inclusive culture with the core values being front and center. University of Michigan coach and mentor for MBA students, Shahnaz Broucek claims “Leadership sets the tone of the workplace culture and acceptable behavioral patterns. ”
Leaders should take the opportunity to set the tone by sharing company values, praising inclusiveness and setting expectations about how people should be treated. They can do this by providing examples of what’s damaging and empowering to the culture by educating employees through workshops, one-on-ones or town hall meetings. If possible, mix up the office or use off-sites, team events and projects to break up the clique forcing them to interact with others.
Leaders must be hands-on to keep cliques from reforming. Managing people requires being in touch and managing the outcomes of situations. If a clique begins to reform, take this opportunity to interact with them and invite new people in. Leaders should be proactive in reaching out to employees to gain their insight on how to create a more inclusive culture.
Eliminate Negative Behaviors
Letting comments slide in the form of remarks and behaviors from one employee to another perpetuates toxic cultures and promotes silencing victims. Francesca Gino recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review on “Why It’s So Hard to Speak Up Against a Toxic Culture.” She wrote, stories like the women at Nike who had enough and sent the results of a company survey directly to the CEO “remind us that speaking up about injustice and being heard in an organization can create positive change.”
Whether it’s witnessing or experiencing it, employees fear speaking out will threaten their jobs, professional reputation and relationships. As a result, they remain quiet allowing the perpetrator to continue to disrespect themselves and others.
How to fix it: There are a few ways to handle this depending on the context and situation. Sometimes, people unknowingly make a one-off inappropriate comment while other times, individuals have a reputation of making them. In situations such as the latter, it’s appropriate to call out the perpetrator even if it requires interrupting a discussion to do so. Address the exact comment and explain why it was inappropriate. This alone sets a standard for the rest of the office moving forward.
If this is a first-time one-off comment, the person should be confronted in a one-on-one to provide an explanation of how they need to be more thoughtful in their behaviors and language. Most often, these people are embarrassed and hadn’t realized they crossed the boundary of making an offensive comment. It’s crucial everyone at the top has a mutual understanding of how to handle this and leads by example to firmly support the policy.
Companies can take it a step further and use current news stories as an opportunity to address sexism, racism and negative comments and behaviors in and out of the workplace. This creates a discussion around the topic keeping it at the forefront of employee’s minds.
Bend Inflexible Rules
Most leaders believe rules are inflexible and should remain the same across the board for every situation. The reality is, it’s rare for each individual circumstance to be exactly the same. Enforcing draconian measures is the quickest way to negatively impact productivity and office morale.
Companies risk alienating employees by displaying a lack of trust and enforcing petty workplace policies. Some common outdated policies include a restriction on working from home, banning social media on work computers and a lack of flexibility in regards to vacation and time off requests, to name a few.
How to fix it: Flexibility can be a challenge to introduce into an already existing inflexible culture. Leaders can start by implementing new and updated policies one step at a time, gauging how employees react while eliciting their feedback. It’s essential for leaders to stay engaged and alert to how employees are adapting to the new changes while conducting frequent check-ins to gain insight on how to continue improving workplace policies.
Managers can introduce a remote working policy and collaborate with their employees to fine tune it before rolling it out as an official new policy. Leaders that include employees in decision-making processes experience increased engagement and productivity. Employees want to be a part of bigger decisions and to have their voices be heard.
Banish Poisonous Conversations
A culture of complaining is built around pointing out flaws and mistakes with little to no recognition. Constant complaining and allowing negative behaviors such as workplace bullying and chatter of office politics poison good company cultures. Colleagues unknowingly encourage this by contributing to the conversation instead of ending it. Leaders enable this by avoiding getting involved and putting a stop to it.
Complaining and constant negativity is harmful to productivity and morale. Kathi Elster says “while cliques wield social power by deciding who is popular and who is not – the members are not usually respected professionally.” Companies ultimately risk losing good employees who have had enough due to leadership allowing negative conversations to dominate the workplace.
How to fix it: Leaders should address workplace gossip and toxic conversations immediately by identifying and pulling aside the complainers. There is greater success in putting a stop to negative behavior on the spot than waiting until the next one-on-one or performance review.
This practice will help them understand the impact of their behavior and words while laying out the consequences, confidentially. After meeting with the complainers one-on-one, call a town hall meeting and address the issue to the entire team with the current complaint or gossip subject as the topic of discussion. To be successful, leaders need to remain firm in the consequences associated should this behavior continue.