Every company in the world is battling a contagion that could seriously impair its survival. Coronavirus? Not exactly, but it is a virus of sorts.

It's gossip.

Whenever people collaborate, be it professionally or socially, gossip is present. Sadly, for many of us, it's such a normalized behavior we don't even know we're doing it.

But gossip is toxic. It eviscerates trust. And if you care about your brand and the standard you set for your organization, you'll attack it head-on -- starting with yourself.

Here's a quick test to determine if as a leader you're part of the problem (hint: you are). When people are standing in front of you, do you speak about them in the same tone and with the same words that you use when they're not? If there's any incongruence (hint: there is), then you're modeling the wrong behavior for your team members, family, and people in every area of your life.

One of my mentors, the late Stephen R. Covey, shared in his writings the concept of "being loyal to the absent." When this becomes your standard as a leader, your culture changes immediately.

The best approach to eliminate gossip from your culture is to cease engaging in it yourself:

  1. Commit to entering each conversation with the intent not to disparage or critique any third party unless, and until, you've talked about the issue directly with that party first. And if you pass this first test, still ask yourself, "Why do I feel the need to share this with this other person?" "I've already solved the issue with Tim, so why am I now talking to Annie about it?" and "How is this building trust with either of them?"
  2. Summon the courage and diplomacy to address issues directly with those you're typically talking about. This doesn't mean you wage a campaign of interventions and righting of perceived wrongs with everyone you encounter. Pick your issues carefully, but the more you build the muscle of talking directly with people when you have a disappointment or conflict, the less you'll find the urge to talk to someone else about it -- known plainly, in case you forgot, as gossip.
  3. Memorize this quote from author Blaine Lee: "Nearly all, if not all, conflict in life comes from mismatched or unfulfilled expectations." The clearer you are about what you expect from others and what they expect from you, the less tension and anxiety you'll experience in every area of your life. Often gossiping is a release of those tensions that we've typically created ourselves.
  4. Resist the urge to claim the moral high ground and shame other gossipers. Focus on your own behavior. Model what you want to see in your team. Others will immediately notice a change in the words you use and how you refuse to engage in relationship-damaging, trust-eroding behaviors. When you experience team members gossiping, try saying something like "I'm sure this isn't your intent, but if Andrew heard you say that about him, I suspect he'd be offended or, worse, embarrassed. I encourage you to talk to him directly about this, and if I have any issues with him, I'll do the same." Small, subtle, redirecting phrases demonstrate what your new standard is, without you becoming judge and jury overnight.
  5. Pay attention to the urge to talk about someone negatively when they're not present. Either deliberately decide to reserve comment or flip the script entirely and share something you admire about them. With some care and compassion, all of us can find something we respect about most people. This might result in a mindset change about how you view them and uncover a deeper understanding of your overall motives in life.

Want to change your culture? It can happen one conversation at a time. It will go faster than you think.