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Gossip at work: turning it into something useful

Bev Flaxington

Bev Flaxington

We all like a good chat about our colleagues, don’t we? On challenging projects with big teams there is always plenty to comment about, from why so-and-so was late to work to whether someone else is doing a good job. I spoke to workplace behavioural expert Beverly Flaxington from The Collaborative about gossip, and how we can use it as a way to improve productivity and solve problems.

Beverly, how do you define gossip?

In my definition “gossip” is anything that employees use to talk about another person, or issue in the firm, that is detrimental or that couldn’t and wouldn’t be said directly to the person being discussed. For example, I don’t consider emailing my colleague to say a mutual friend in the firm is moving to another location as “gossip” if the friend would not mind me telling someone. That’s a fact about someone else and they are okay with the message.

Gossip is when I would not say it to the person, or would not want the person to know I repeated it, “Don’t tell anyone, but did you hear that Susie got passed over for the promotion?” Or, “I hear we are cutting back on our support staff. Management are idiots and don’t know what they are doing,” would be examples in my definition. Gossip includes when someone says something about another person and it is taken as fact without being checked out. None of us like to experience this.

So intent has a lot to do with it?

As a rule of thumb, if you are doing it with positive intent or the hopes of improving something – great. If you know it is negative, or someone would be upset, or the boss needs to know it in order to change it – find a more productive outlet for what you are about to say! It’s detrimental when issues that should be addressed cannot be because the discussion is all underground or purely negative. I call this “pinning Jell O to the wall”. When it’s back door and the people who could fix it, or address it, cannot do so, it will stay as Jell O – ever moving, ever changing and never pinned down.

We’d call that jelly over here, but we have the same expression. How can project managers work with their teams to stop time-wasting, negative gossip?

Have a clear plan of action. Who, what, when, etc. Circulate updates frequently. Get people in a room to discuss what’s standing in the way. Have open discussions about how the team is interacting and working together. I teach teams that it is as important to work on “how we will work together as a team” and plan that out, and check in on it, as it is to take the time to create the project plan in the first place. Assigning duties to people’s strengths, having open forums, assigning roles in the teams such as facilitator, recorder, etc. and setting ground rules for how we will work together can all help squelch negative gossip before it starts.

A lot of what is gossiped about is negative, though. How can we turn this around and use gossip productively?

The problem occurs because we know if employees are taking their time to gossip and talk about people and problems, that unless they are then reaching a resolution, it is detrimental to the business. It is a time suck and it can bring people’s morale and enthusiasm down. I believe smart managers CAN use gossip productively but most are not doing so. Many managers have the attitude that they don’t want to hear the complaints so the complaints go underground. We know they don’t go away, they just get expressed in a less productive forum.

Make your Shift

Beverly’s book: Make Your Shift

OK, so if our project team members have problems they feel the need to gossip about, we need to tap into those and resolve the gripes effectively instead of letting them fester. What’s the best way to come up with solutions to the problems that people gossip about?

There are 4 steps:

  1. Define what you want.
  2. Identify the obstacles (i.e. what they are gossiping about).
  3. Recognise what contribution (negative or positive) is being made by people gossiping and have them turn this into information to be used to solve issues.
  4. Brainstorm alternatives, get commitments, develop ground rules for how you will act together.

That sounds good. What’s your top tip for turning gossip into a trigger for action?

My personal favourite is having an agreement in the organisation that we can’t talk about a third party without them being there. So, when Sally walks in and starts complaining to me about how Ted didn’t finish his part of the project, instead of engaging with Sally, I call Ted and have a three-way conversation. “Ted, Sally has a concern that you haven’t completed your part of the project. Can we talk about this?”

Rumour mongering, unproductive gossip and backstabbing go away pretty quickly with this method. And real issues (like if Ted actually is holding up the project) can get addressed!

And we can’t talk about gossip without me asking this…is it true that women gossip more than men?

I think the form of gossip can be different but, in my personal experience, many men are worse than women! Men might not talk about how much weight a co-worker put on in her pregnancy or who the young guy in the back office is dating (although some do!), but they will gossip about people and job performance, about company rumours, about someone’s behaviour or lack of follow through, and many, many other things! And, many men will no more say something to a person’s face than many women will, so they use gossip as the outlet.

Ah, I knew it wasn’t just us! Thanks, Beverly!

Beverly Flaxington is a Certified Professional Behavioural Analyst (CPBA), hypnotherapist, and career and business adviser who specialises in helping managers and employees navigate through workplace behavioural issues. She is the author of four business and financial books including her most recent, Make Your SHIFT: The Five Most Powerful Moves You Can Make to Get Where YOU Want to Go (ATA Press, 2012).


5 Ways to Manage Team Conflicts

5 ways to manage team conflictThis is a guest post by Daniel Raymond, marketing manager at Project-Management.com.

Workplace conflict is caused by many things, making it a part of life for project managers. In essence, you are bringing together people with different personalities, mindsets, and specialization and are asking them to work as one. It is very rare for projects to go smoothly. Even in simple, straightforward projects, conflict between people can rear its ugly head. The most common reasons for this include personality clashes, misunderstandings, disagreements about the work, and egos.

If you’re the project manager, your responsibility is to mediate between the parties involved. Take note that there are instances where conflicts cannot be resolved no matter what you do. The resentment between two people is just too deep. Don’t side with anyone. Your responsibility is to ensure that they can still work together as far as possible or to make alternative plans if they can’t.

Here are some guidelines on how you can resolve team conflicts.

1. Exercise an authoritarian approach

This must be done if there is intense pressure to finish within the deadline or if the due date is approaching. Just tell the group what the resolution should be. Emergency situations require unpopular decisions. The authoritarian approach is particularly effective if the project is nearing completion.

2. Avoidance

There are some cases where project managers avoid confrontation. They ignore team conflicts as if they don’t exist. If the issues between team members aren’t serious and if they can still work professionally, it may not require the attention of the project manager. It is still best for the manager to get involved though, if only to provide a better work environment for the team.

3. Sacrificing self-concerns

This entails yielding to another person, it may be quite difficult because of egos. Nevertheless, the approach can be effective when one person has a significant vested interest in the outcome because in those cases they are more willing to make concessions. When one person is clearly wrong, it may be a good idea to help him or her see the error using examples or proof.

4. Collaborating

Compromises and accommodation (sacrificing self-concerns) involve one or both parties giving in. In collaboration, there is an attempt to find a mutually satisfying outcome. This requires the effort of the team manager as well. It is important to sit down with the people who are in conflict and mediate the discussion to reach a collaborative conclusion.

5. Exchanging concessions

Taking the middle ground can be effective if a quick solution is required for a complex issue. This approach takes the opinions of different people into consideration quickly. The mediation should end by outlining the source of the conflict, gaining commitments from all parties, and setting up a follow-up session.

Keep in mind that when conflict starts, it is usually over a minor issue such as personality mismatch. But when you postpone dealing with the problem, you run the risk of it escalating through annoyances that occur in the meantime. Dealing with conflict early prevents personality clashes from becoming bigger issues.

These are the top 5 ways to manage team conflicts in any project team. Look at the individual situation in your team and adopt the strategy that looks to you as if it will be the most likely to help resolve it.

About the author: Daniel Raymond is the Marketing Manager at Project-Management.com, a site for everything related to project management. They aim to provide a wide selection of project management articles, and detailed project management software reviews.


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Conflict 101 [Book Review]

Conflict 101 book coverWho doesn’t have to deal with conflict at work? Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems so Everyone Can Get Back to Work is the handbook you need to address causes of conflict on projects.

Susan H. Shearouse covers everything from why we are bad at dealing with conflict at the office, how the dynamics of conflict situations work and most importantly, how to resolve conflict. There’s even a section on the sorts of conflict caused by poorly written emails and your project communications could drastically improve from just reading that bit.

I had had a particularly difficult week at work when I picked this book up. It was a Friday night, and I started reading it on the tube on the way home. I read:

Someone says something, and we are sparked to anger. Suddenly we’re standing in the middle of the room, yelling at someone else. Or slamming the door and stomping out of the room. The label ‘conflict’ is slapped on the event, and we walk away embarrassed and ashamed. “How could I have said that to her?” “Why didn’t I just let that go?” We turn these moments over and over in our heads, feeling lousy about who we are and what we have done and because of how we reacted.

Shearouse goes on to say that it’s OK to feel awful. Reading the introduction to this book made me feel instantly better about my week. I felt even better when I noticed a random act of kindness in my tube carriage – a man helping a nun with her bags.

Stop the blame game

The aim of the book is to help you manage better by resolving conflict at a lower level – before it gets to the point where you yell at your project team for not working hard enough. Shearouse reminds us that conflict is inevitable, but that you can get over it. One of the first steps is to step away from the blame game. She writes:

Assigning blame to someone else is a delicious temptation. It looks like the conflict will be much easier to address or to resolve if we can first figure out whose fault it is. Then, if we can fix the individual, the problem is solved. When we look further into the conflict, however, nine times out of ten we have had some role in creating, contributing to, or exacerbating the situation… Time spent assigning blame is only time not spent in finding a way forward.

The book includes dozens of stories, and these were my favourite part. As someone who has worked with dysfunctional teams for years, Shearouse has plenty of real-life examples to draw on. I did get a bit lost when she described passive aggressive behaviour as ‘like grits popping in a pan.’ I don’t know what grits are – porridge? Even Wikipedia didn’t make this any clearer.

5 responses to conflict

Chapter 5 focuses on the 5 responses to conflict:

  1. Avoiding
  2. Accommodating
  3. Directing
  4. Compromising
  5. Collaborating

What I found helpful to understand is that while we might have a personal preference for conflict handling (mine is the Run For The Hills approach), each response has its place. For example, Avoiding is great to stop conflict over the small stuff, or when you need time to cool off before dealing with a problem. It can also work well when you know you aren’t going to win, like when your project sponsor wants you to implement a new change that you don’t agree with. Save your energy for situations where tackling the conflict will move you closer to a resolution and stop banging your head on a brick wall.

The role of culture

The book also makes the reader question the assumptions we bring to situations. These assumptions can create conflict without even trying. For example, the project accountant will always be detail-orientated and fail to see the big project picture. That assumption will change the way you deal with the accountant and could create conflict.

Shearouse points out that as individuals we are the product of our upbringing and society, and that what we might react to will be completely different from the issues that press someone else’s buttons. Being aware of our own views is a big step forward to understanding why conflicts arise and our role in them.

This book is now quite battered as I refer to it frequently. It is not specifically aimed at project managers but it’s essential reading for any project manager who has a challenging project or a challenging team.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

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Infographic: Conflict in Project Management

Conflict in project management infographic

Infographic prepared for me by thegappartnership.com. Click the graphic to see a larger version.


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