Every Friday, the CEO of a prominent tech company (I’ll call him Ken), gathers his troops in the courtyard of their campus for critical updates. The level of candor in these meetings is impressive but the most fascinating part — and what makes this company so unique, is the Q&A that follows.
It’s a no-holds-barred exchange that would take the breath away of most corporate managers. The CEO implores people to ask tough questions. On a recent Friday at 4:55pm with seconds left in the meeting Ken points to an employee with a hand raised. The employee says:
“Ken, when I got here I was told you wanted a culture of candor and respect. I have an email thread that included dozens of us here from one of our top managers that demonstrates he is a flaming jerk. He was abusive, condescending and threatening. So, I have three questions for you: 1) did you know this? 2) do you care? 3) what are you willing to do about it?”
It is a valued source of information for those who mistrust formal channels. “Word on the street is that the new test facility funding didn’t make the cut.” It’s also the most common way of gaining valued information about our most important social systems. “Don’t have Ted do your graphics unless you’re satisfied with clip art.”
It sometimes serves as an emotional release for anger or frustration. “Chet made us look like idiots in the project review today. I was so humiliated!”
It is used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts. “I heard Brett slammed your capital requests—and mine—in the planning meeting. I see no reason to keep processing his claims with the same urgency.”
Gossip is an effective way of achieving these goals in an unhealthy social system. People engage in gossip when they lack trust or efficacy. We become consumers of gossip when we don’t trust formal channels — so we turn to trusted friends rather than doubtful leaders. We become purveyors of it when we feel we can’t raise sensitive issues more directly — so we natter with neighbors rather than confronting offenders.
The problem with gossip is that it reinforces the sickness that generates it. It’s pernicious because it’s based on a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I lack trust or efficacy I engage in gossip — which robs me of the opportunity to test my mistrust or inefficacy. The more I use it the more I reinforce my need for it.
Over time gossip weakens the will. Like all palliatives, it provides relief from problems without actually solving them. Reliance on gossip can sap the strength it takes to participate in complex social life. Risk-free yakking about problems temporarily distracts us from our sense of responsibility to solve them. It also anesthetizes us from the painful uncertainty that inevitably accompanies mature interpersonal problem solving.
Leaders at the tech company discussed above see gossip not as a problem but as a symptom of a lack of trust and efficacy. They address the underlying problem in three ways:
Stop enabling. The best way to stop gossip is to stop enabling it. Gossipers are rewarded when others respond passively — by simply listening. To stop it, force it into the open. At the tech company, employees know that gossip comes with a risk — the risk that you will be called out. Recently some employees noticed a number of others had begun to use a third-party app, Secret, which allows people to share message anonymously, to complain about colleagues and policies. When they recognized their colleagues’ complaints, longer-tenured employees began calling out those who were whining rather than confronting responsibly. They even posted their names and contact information in the app to offer support for those who wanted to learn how to truly solve their problems.
Build trust in the alternatives. Leaders at the company also reduce the supply of gossip by decreasing demand. They proliferate options for raising problems. The all-hands meeting is just one example. The company also uses an internal social network platform to model candor and openness on a host of topics that would be terrifying at other places. For example, some employees grumbled when execs announced a recent multi-billion dollar acquisition.
Monday-morning quarterbacking is common at all companies but at this company it was done with attributed comments in a discussion group – and Ken participated! One employee kicked it off with: “What’s up? We already have a business unit that does the same thing with even better margins?” The concern was addressed openly rather than metastasizing in gossip because there were credible channels for the discussion to take place.
Build skill. Gossip is a form of learned incompetence — an acquired skill that produces poor results. Overcoming it requires replacing that skill. The tech company starts re-scripting employees on day one. In a rigorous orientation employees are asked to describe things they hated about other places they worked. At the top of the list is always gossip and politics. Managers leading these discussions use this moment to offer alternative skills and strategies for surfacing emotionally and politically risky concerns—and to challenge employees to create the culture they want by using them.
When the employee finished her statement to Ken, other employees erupted in applause. She was rewarded because she was transparent. Every employee standing there that day got the message: “At this company we do things in the open.”
And CEO Ken followed suit: “First,” he said, “I did not know about the concern you described. Second, I care deeply. And third, I don’t know what to do, yet. I need information. Are you available now to talk?”
Gossip is not a problem; it’s a symptom. The symptom disappears when a critical mass of leaders stop enabling it, create trust in healthy communication channels, and invest in building employees’ skills to use