Stop gossip in your group
By Amy Shannon
It’s easy to start “talking the nasty” behind fellow members’ backs, but it’s not so easy to stop. Whether you admit it or not, gossip in a leadership organization is as common as caffeine in the hands of a procrastinator during finals week. So, stop sipping your hater-ade, take out a pen and some paper, and you’ll be well on your way to losing those loose lips. Welcome to Gossip 101.
Lesson One: What is gossip?
Lesson Two: Why do we gossip?
“I honestly don’t think people can help themselves,” says Dr. Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Illinois. “It’s part of human nature and our interest in what people are up to.” Because gossip is so natural, it’s absolutely crucial that organizations create an atmosphere where students feel open to share and talk without going behind other members’ backs.
Lesson Three: Why is gossiping a problem?
In addition, gossip can completely undermine an organization’s purpose. “I’ve seen gossip among a group’s student leaders destroy morale, hurt the group’s public image, and make it next to impossible for the group to be taken seriously on campus,” says Steven Roberts, co-chair of SPECTRUM at Kent State University—Stark regional campus in Ohio. “It took the group several years to recover.”
One person’s chitchat may be another person’s slander. But also, don’t forget that it takes two to gossip. “When you choose to initiate gossip or even partake in it, you’re, in a sense, killing three people,” Burg says. “You’re killing yourself, the gossiper, because you are committing a deadly sin, and when we shame someone through gossiping, it’s like murdering them because their reputation gets killed. What about the listener? That would be the one you’d say, ‘Well wait a second, that person isn’t as guilty—all they’re doing is listening.’ However, that person is the only one with a chance because the gossiper has already made the choice to gossip, and the person who is being gossiped about has no choice. The person listening has the choice to say, ‘Stop, this is not something I want to hear.’”
Lesson Four: How can gossip be stopped?
“The manner in which my vice president and I dealt with gossip was not innovative, but was rather productive,” says Chris Mathias, student body president at Boise State University in Idaho. “I established an unwritten policy from the day I was sworn in that said no one on the executive staff is allowed to close their office curtains, nor are they allowed to close their doors while in their offices unless a student comes by and needs to privately discuss an issue.”
After you’ve come together and agreed to not tolerate gossip, you can’t go back. Gossip is capable of tearing through your organization like cancer. Prevention is the key. You’ve got to get it before it gets you.
Lesson Five: Got solutions?
Sometimes the best response to gossip is no response. “Refuse to listen to gossip, slander, and other negative forms of speech,” Burg says. “If you’re on a diet, don’t bring the cake and cookies into your home. If you’re ending gossip, try and keep away from conversations that may tempt you to listen or chime in.”
However, others believe you should take a proactive stance. “Your best bet is to get it out in the open,” Roberts says. “If you ignore it, it’ll just fester and grow until it has to be addressed. Make a general announcement that gossip won’t be tolerated during meetings and other official gatherings. Acknowledge that gossip can’t be policed outside official functions and explain that gossip among members, wherever it occurs, can be detrimental to the entire group. If possible, provide a hypothetical example.”
The longer you wait to address the situation, the longer it’s going to fester and cause more problems. You might be able to turn off the gossip spigot by talking with the source privately. “The first thing you should do if you know who started it is to have a meeting with the person to stop it there. If you can cut it off at the source, it won’t keep spreading around and around,” Miller says.
Prepare what you’re going to say and approach the individual with kindness in order to avoid lashing out in anger. If you create a situation in which the person becomes defensive, nothing good will come of it. “I went away to England for a semester and while I was gone, I was going to run for re-election for the student newspaper,” Miller says. "A couple people didn’t like the way I had run things, and they started telling new staff members what they thought of me. It got to the point where those new staff members had never met me but were so enraged that I had won the election. So, what I had to do that fall was work especially hard to win those people back even though I had never really mentioned them, because somebody else had set this rumor going around about me. Later, they realized I wasn’t like that, but it was definitely a hurdle to jump through at the beginning of the semester.”
When all else fails, a little creativity can help put a stop to the rumor train chugging through your organization. “What if everyone who gossiped decided to do the opposite and do ‘reverse gossip?’“ Burg asks. “In other words, you talk good about people—‘Now, isn’t Dave a hard worker or isn’t Mary a great person?’ Take it a step forward and it begins to spread to others, and the talk about a person’s good comments eventually gets back to that person.” Students are bound to talk about the people in their lives, and choosing to spread kind words around instead of gossip and rumors creates a healthier environment where everyone is better off.
Burg also suggests a solution that can work your members’ wallets to serve as a reminder not to gossip. “A real estate agency once set up this workplace system that centered on the idea that behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Each employee had to put $1 in a bucket whenever someone said something that was hurtful. At the end of the month, they gave it to a charity. Since people didn’t want to give away their money, they became less likely to gossip,” Burg says. This type of activity allows group members to realize how much gossip is a part of their life.
Lastly, setting a good example is one of the best policies when sustaining a successful gossip-free organization. If you refuse to gossip or listen to it, members of your organization will see this and possibly think twice before letting loose last night’s “juice!”
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