Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Talking about co-workers when they’re not present isn’t always bad form. Here’s how positive gossip can strengthen relationships in your practice. By Angela Tufvesson
Gossip gets a bad rap in the workplace. There’s no doubt that talking negatively about someone behind their back or spreading rumours can set a dangerous precedent and harm relationships.
But it’s the content and tone of the gossip, not the act itself, that’s the source of trouble. Research shows that positive gossiping behaviours can build trust, foster teamwork, and even improve performance in your practice.
Channelling the positive
Gossip is talking negatively about a person who isn’t present, while positive gossip keeps the talk encouraging and upbeat, explains Rosie Overfield, director of Mindpod, a consultancy that supports mental wellbeing in veterinary workplaces, and a member of the AVA Veterinary Wellness Steering Group.
“Positive workplace gossip is conveying positive information,” she says. “It’s about recognition and praise of people’s abilities, attitudes and performance when they’re not in the room.”
Overfield says one of the most powerful forms of positive gossip is praising a co-worker. “You might say, ‘You should’ve seen Sam in action yesterday—he was super brilliant during that emergency’,” she says. “If a colleague gets a promotion, you might verbally and visibly tell other people that that person deserved it—‘It’s a perfect fit for her as she’s got amazing leadership skills’.”
These positive, affirming statements contrast sharply with those typically associated with gossip, such as nasty and undermining chitchat or the spreading of malicious rumours. Overfield says positive gossip, on the other hand, helps to promote a cooperative, high-performing workforce.
“Think about gossip as moving from a place of lies, secrets and espionage, to recognising that positive gossip serves an important function in practices,” she says. “Rather than it being negative and cringeworthy, and destructive and addictive, reframe workplace gossip as a critical pro-social behaviour.”
Towards trust and inclusion
Positive gossip plays an important role in building trust among co-workers, says Eleanor Groat, founder of professional training and coaching consultancy Your Best Asset. “How someone speaks about a colleague to you is probably how they’re going to speak about you to someone else,” she says.
“This leads to inclusion and a sense of belonging because if you’re talking positively about your colleagues, really what you’re doing is showing that you’re able to be part of the group, that you feel safe to be included—which is an early sign of psychological safety.”
Working in an environment that promotes trust and inclusion has flow-on effects for collegiality, Overfield says, explaining that evolutionary theory posits that humans developed gossip and storytelling to facilitate cooperation.
“There’s a tonne of empirical evidence to support positive workplace gossip,” she says. “It has a positive impact on people’s attitudes and behaviours; they are more likely to follow business processes and be generous with each other. When we do gossip well, it often creates a very tight team that’s far more effective and high performing,” she says.
A workplace culture that values positive gossip also gives people effective strategies to diffuse tension and resolve potential misunderstandings before the tone becomes combative or judgemental.
“If there’s an inference from a team member that someone didn’t do the right thing and it potentially starts to become a negative conversation, a person can come in and say something like, ‘We don’t know why David made that decision, but I’m sure he had his reasons, so let’s wait until he arrives so we can discuss it and find out’,” Overfield says.
“This takes the heat out of what can potentially become conflict.”
Promoting positive gossip
Setting clear expectations around gossip helps to avoid confusion and promote the behaviours you want staff in your practice to display. Groat suggests arranging a team meeting where everyone is encouraged to share their perspective and workshop strategies.
“You might decide it’s a positive or helpful comment if it elevates the person who’s being discussed, versus elevating yourself in the conversation or pulling another person down,” she says.
Overfield suggests adopting the ‘THINK rule’: is it true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind? “This approach helps people figure out if what they are thinking of saying is appropriate. It’s an opportunity to self-reflect before you open your mouth and talk about others.”
Strength spotting—recognising and calling out something a co-worker does well—can help to cement positive gossiping behaviours. “When you see or hear something that is great about another person, that shows something about their character and their work, you might as a team commit to sharing it with them and with one other person,” Groat says.
It can also be helpful to build on the positive gossiping behaviours of co-workers. “When someone shares something positive, add to it. A colleague might say, ‘Sarah is such a great team player.’ And you could say, ‘Yes, she is. She’s so good with the pet owners.’ Making it an automatic response elevates it and builds on the original comment.”
Practice owners and managers are key agents of change, so it’s important to hold yourself to the same standard as the rest of your team. “The minute you make a sly or snide comment about someone in the team, you give permission to everybody else to do that,” Overfield says.
“Walking the talk is really important, because it’s one thing to put it in a policy but quite another to do the thing you say is important and that you value as an organisation.
“You can demonstrate, facilitate and create opportunities to allow positive workplace gossip to be a tool for good and a strength for your practice, as opposed to the thing that erodes your culture and gets out of control.”