Gentle approach may quiet a gossip

Dear Joan:
We are a small department, which is a part of a larger division of a multi-national company. Our group is dependent upon teamwork, open communication, and continuous interaction in order to run properly and efficiently. Up until about six months ago, we worked very well together with few problems.

However, recently a few of us have been the subject of some vicious rumors started by a member of our own group. The stories usually consist of how badly we treat this co-worker, which are then greatly exaggerated as the story continues from one office to the next. Although we realize there's not much you can do about correcting past gossip, we'd like to know how to prevent future rumors from even starting. Do you recommend confronting the gossip-spreader, who will naturally deny any knowledge? Or do we just hope that the people on the receiving end of these lies are smart enough not to believe them?

To say that the working relationship with this person is tense and strained would be an understatement. We are all committed to the success of our organization but are very distracted by the immature actions of this one person. We don't understand why our co-worker feels the need to tear down everything the group has built up over the years.

We value your opinion and greatly appreciate any advice you can give us.

A betrayal like this goes deep. And once the trust is broken, it's very difficult to re-build. However, you only have a few choices: continue to work in a strained environment, which will eventually erupt; or try to resolve the situation.

You may have hit on something when you said your group doesn't understand what you could have done to offend this person. Perhaps nothing...but it's more likely that somehow this individual feels wounded by others in the group. Without realizing it, you may have ostracized this person and he or she is retaliating.

Here is an approach to consider: Try to get at the core cause of the problem...but not through a direct attack. (I agree that a direct group confrontation will only make matters worse-- driving the gossiper's resentment deeper.) Instead, a gentler tactic might work.

For instance, someone from the group could approach this person and say something like this: "I've noticed that you seem to be distancing yourself from the team. You don't talk to us much anymore and you seem to avoid being with us. Is there something that happened that offended or hurt you?"

If the gossip responds to that prompt and begins to talk, it will be critical for the other person to be a skilled listener. The listener would be smart to paraphrase and draw out more details and examples so they can understand the problem. This person can say, "I know that other's on the team are very concerned about you too and they want to know if they have done something to upset you." If the gossip doesn't want to tell the rest of the team, suggest that you carry the message. Once other members hear what the problem is, they can approach this person themselves.

If the gossip doesn't take the olive branch and chooses instead to be flippant or to say nothing, I would suggest this response: "It seems like you are really angry about something. I hope you'll come forward and let one of us know why so we can do something about it. I've been hearing from outsiders that the team is treating you badly. I don't know where that's coming from but frankly it doesn't make you or the rest of us look very good if we can't resolve our own issues. We want to work on it and we hope you do too." If there is no response, walk away and let the person think about it. They will have a hard time ignoring that offer and it will take the sting out of their resentment.

Gossipers and negative backbiters usually don't have to maturity or the skills to deal with a personal hurt head on. They try to get even by hurting back. If both sides use the same tactic it only drags both sides down to a lower level. It takes a big person (or people) with strong commitment to integrity and values to take the first step toward resolving a conflict like this. The team feels hurt and angry too and swallowing their resentment to extend their hand will be difficult. If you can do it, you will all grow as individuals and as a team.

However, if the gossip chooses to ignore the attempt and pursues the vicious sniping, the team would be wise to pull together and work hard at performing so well and supporting each other that anyone who hears the rumors will realize who has the problem.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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