The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Office Grapevine

The Office Grapevine:
People Talking Smack 

Have you heard?
Everyone at work is talking about
everyone else at work. What gives?

Office politics are sometimes difficult, but can be managed. Office bullies are mean, but can be contained. Office workloads are intense, but mostly doable. But the office grapevine? Powerful. Annoying. Damaging. Out of control at times.

     "He said what?!?"          "That's not what I heard."       "She's definitely..."

Today's Coach on Call question comes from C.H. who asks:

"It seems like everyone in my office is judging everyone else. I haven't been here that long, but people talk about each other behind their backs all the time and then smile to their faces. Some people have had their reputations destroyed by gossip on the office grapevine. 

I try not to get involved, but it's hard to avoid. I'm guilty too. I worry what others say about me. I think even the big bosses do it. It's the way the whole company works. What should I do to protect myself? How can I keep from getting involved without making others feel bad or alienating myself from my co-workers?"

The office grapevine takes on a life of it's own if it isn't shut down by your leadership team. Unfortunately, that makes it all the more powerful a force to deal with at work. Every individual then has to decide on his or her own: What role will I play? How do I avoid direct (or collateral) damage when the light shines on me?

Thanks for your question. Here are three quick things you need to know:  Don't feed it. Don't fall victim to it. Balance grace with force.

Let's dig in.

Don't Feed It

Lots of stress is created from the existence of gossip in the workplace. Even if most of the gossip is harmless, it's time-consuming and distracting. When it isn't harmless and people's reputations are at stake, it's a cancer. There's stress in hearing all the negativity. There's stress in wondering what's true and what isn't. There's stress in worrying what's being said about you as soon as you walk away.

The best way to avoid the stress of the grapevine is to avoid participating in it as much as possible. If you're not an active participant, the gossip won't come your way as often. You're no fun if you won't play along. The hard part is not p*ssing off the feeders of the grapevine by acting like it's beneath you or that you disapprove. If you judge them, you'll become the next topic.
My suggestions:   
Learn how to be an "uninterested" party. When people try to gossip with you, here are some things you can say. They'll go away, because you're no fun and you're not encouraging the discussion. It's what I call a passive shut-down.
  • That's interesting. I wonder if it's really true. Guess we'll never know.
  • Hmm. I hadn't heard that. Some of the rumors going around are crazy.
  • Wow. That's pretty harsh. What a shame for them if it isn't really true.
  • Oh good grief. Glad I'm not him (or her).
  • Did that really happen? It's good I don't have to deal with that directly.
  • This place is crazy. I'm not sure how we get anything done around here.
  • That's really something. I'm just minding my own business.
It's so easy to get pulled in and start to feed the monster, even in subtle ways as you vent to co-workers. Try to catch yourself if you're the instigator. And if it comes your way, try to reply in a way that demonstrates you aren't against the gossiper, you're just not into the gossip. You won't get pulled in as often. (Sidebar: I always find it interesting when people gossip about how awful the gossipers are.  Hmmm.)

Don't Fall Victim To It

People who find themselves being victimized on the grapevine have become targets of someone with influence (formal or informal influence). Sometimes it's unavoidable and other times it's completely in your power.

Here are the most common ways you become a target:
  • You have achievement, status, or favor and others are jealous.
  • You're a target because of how you look or how you act.
  • You've attracted the attention of someone who just doesn't like you.
  • You had a conflict and others are gossiping to improve their position.
  • You did or said something that's just fun for others to talk about.
  • You haven't managed your boundaries and your actions spark gossip.
I've been a topic on the grapevine and it's no fun. Sometimes the issues were beyond my control, but other times I walked right into being a target because I was ignorant about how my actions would be perceived. I've learned a lot, and I'm more aware now than even just a few years ago, but this requires ongoing attention for everyone.
My suggestions:   
First, just know that you'll be a target on occasion. Almost everyone is if they're doing anything big, important, or bold at work. Try not to take it personally and realize that gossip is more about a deficiency in the other person than one in you. I'm really bad about taking things personally, so I'll just rely on "Do as I say, not as I do" here. 
Second, be particularly careful about your words and actions just after you receive positive feedback that sets you apart from the pack, whether that's a promotion, award, or public recognition. People who don't feel good about themselves go directly after someone who has reason to celebrate. Realize that people also like to read a lot into relationships in particular, so be careful with your boundaries and appearances. Both negative and positive relationships can bite you on the grapevine. I've learned this lesson the hard way.
Third, be kind and collaborative. It sounds dumb, but it's much harder for people to make you a target if you're genuinely kind and easy to work with. That doesn't mean you have to be a push-over. Just be a good person at work and it goes a long way toward earning a pass on the grapevine. It's the most powerful tool you have at your disposal.

Balance Grace and Force

At some point if you're a topic on the office grapevine, someone will probably tell you what's being said. You'll probably feel like everyone is looking at you and judging you. Trust that they're not. Half of the people don't care. Another large group cares, but doesn't make assumptions, and bases their opinions on direct interactions with you. The rest? You may or may not be able to stop them.

In all cases, you're best response to office gossip is grace. If you get angry, start sputtering around, and trying to identify your aggressors you'll just make it worse. Think grace in all interactions. That said, you don't want to just wave your hand and pretend it doesn't exist.
My suggestions:   
Try to understand what's being said and in what circles. If it's true, consider whether you need to own up to it with individuals or groups at work. You may even need to provide an apology. If it's not true, be honest with yourself about whether you earned the gossip through careless words or actions or mis-managed relationships. 
You may not be able to undo the gossip, but if you change your approach... it will die down. Avoid trying to unravel gossip on the grapevine unless it's very serious; just try to demonstrate more clearly through your actions that others' assumption are false. 
If you learn that there is one influencer or aggressor, consider having a direct conversation with that person. Think grace, but balance it with force. Your objective shouldn't be to pick a fight and demand to know why. Your objective is only to confirm the truth, by asking if there's something you need to resolve together to get on the same page. Don't give someone reason to continue to come after you by behaving poorly. Grace wins the day.

Bottom Line

Office grapevines exist in almost every workplace. Sometimes leaders shut them down by asking people to knock off the nonsense. Other times, the workplace culture supports gossip at the highest levels of the organization. Either way, people talk. 

You can spend time worrying about what others might say, but you're better off focusing on how to avoid being a target in the first place. Don't contribute to the grapevine yourself with negativity. Be kind and collaborative in your work on a daily basis. Fit in, at least to some degree. Manage conflicts productively and privately when possible, and try to get to full closure even when you disagree. Be mindful of your relationships, both positive and negative, to avoid giving people fun topics to gossip about. If you make a mistake, own it and apologize as needed so you and everyone else can move on.

C.H. - This is a great question - thank you - and a big challenge for so many people. I hope my suggestions helped and that you can use some of this insight to improve your situation at work.

More soon,

If you or anyone you know needs help navigating challenging situations at work, I'd love to have the opportunity to help through my coaching practice. If you're interested in working with me, please visit my website here or pass it along. You can also share this article by using the buttons below. Thank for reading and for your continued support.