If you think that your workplace culture should develop organically, think again. I shared my thoughts about what drives company culture early on in a business, but when I started my company, it was an afterthought. All my co-founder and I could think of were to survive, make it through to the next funding round, and get the key performance indicators up, which in hindsight was shortsighted.
From the very outset of any business venture, the importance of establishing a vibrant, cohesive company culture should be a top priority. Your company culture will be the context upon which your business operates, and is intrinsically linked to productivity. While it is possible to transform cultures at any stage of a company's evolution, intentionally defining it early-on helps avoid the challenge of shifting an already ingrained culture toward the desired one.
Gossip Poisons Company Culture
Office gossip is a perennially toxic threat to all the positive attributes of the company culture listed above. Office gossip, when permitted to flourish unfettered, can completely destroy the original vision of a culture that was intended to be a source of connectivity and harmony in the workplace.
Gossip creates negative energy that will penetrate all levels of the organization if left to run amok. A unicorn founder once told me, "If toxicity exists in your company, cut it right at the root." Workplace gossip and drama undermines productivity in many ways, including:
- Sabotages trust among coworkers
- Fosters low morale
- Leads to higher turnover
- Destroys cohesiveness
- Encourages office politics and backstabbing
What Drives Gossip?
When envisioning your fledgling company's workplace culture, it helps to be realistic about the threats to that amazing vision. After all, human beings are not machines. As humans, who could state with any amount of honesty that they have never gossiped with coworkers? Human nature is what it is, including an inherent desire to boost their own self-image by belittling another. Wagging tongues around the water cooler, in the cubicle, the break room, or online messaging tools whip up rumors, innuendo, and perpetuate lies, often for the purpose of gaining some modicum of self-aggrandizement as a result. In a word, gossip is ego-driven.
My first encounter with rampant office gossip was nearly a decade ago when we launched the technology business. Our key engineer had become resentful, and looking back on it now, I don't blame him. Admittedly, my partner and I had a lot to learn about leadership. In his Debbie Downer state, however, this employee constantly complained and criticized decisions.
Being new to the founder role, I had hoped this phase would pass, but I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, it got worse. His constant complaining demoralized the team and polluted the culture. Like a cancer, his negativity spread throughout our lean team. I eventually fired him, but, mistakenly, had waited too long and the damage was already done. This experience was painful but confirmed the need to immediately cut out any such toxicity right from the start.
Creating and Sustaining a Productive Workplace Culture
These steps could help create the kind of culture you envision by minimizing office gossip:
Provide each employee with your company's charter. In these materials explain how gossip undermines the company culture, and provide a format in which employees can bring up complaints in a productive and constructive manner.
Include in the onboarding process an explicit zero tolerance gossip company policy and provide a clear step-by-step procedure for surfacing concerns or a grievance.
Require that all grievances be accompanied by a proposed solution. By including a solution to the problem, the grievance becomes a vehicle for improvement that can benefit all employees, versus just an opportunity to complain.
Lead by example. As the pilot of the business, if you hold yourself to high standards and never engage in gossipy activities, it inspires authenticity and instills in employees a sense of trust in their leadership.
These steps will help build a culture strategically, instead of allowing for an organic evolution that could wind up at odds with the original vision. The earlier on that a work culture is defined and actively developed, the better.