A Publication of WTVP

Battling Office Gossip

by Amy Burkett |

Have you ever wondered why gossip spreads so quickly in offices?

I finally did some research and found the most interesting answer, which actually is based on science. Usually there’s a “drama triangle.” It goes something like this:

  1. Person #1 sees himself or herself as the victim.
  2. Person #2 is the rescuer.
  3. Person #3 is perceived as the persecutor.

Here’s a scenario. Person #1 goes to person #2 and says, “Can you believe the boss doesn’t like my idea? He never likes my ideas and always expects me to come up with more solutions. He wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit him.”

Person #2, for some reason, always thinks that in order to be a good friend, he needs to support whatever Person #1 believes by saying, “I know. He expects me to come up with multiple ideas, too. That’s awful.”

Meanwhile person #3, the persecutor, has no idea Persons #1 and #2 feel hurt or that they’ve been treated unfairly.

This theory was shared by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s. Person #1 seeks comfort and validation instead of confrontation. It’s known as “illusory superiority bias,” which means we are hardwired to inflate our opinions of ourselves. Person #1 decides it’s not due to the situation; he blames person #3’s character. Person #1 almost always assumes malice.

We can help reduce office gossip if we can get our teams to do two things: One, assume good intent. Two, go to the source and discuss the situation.

These two not-so-simple steps are the building blocks of teamwork and healthy confrontation.

In over 30 years of leadership, I’ve never seen a situation where the so-called persecutor wouldn’t take the time to have a conversation with an upset team member, when given the chance. More often than not, the root of the issue is a simple misunderstanding. The leader likely sees the so-called victim as incredibly talented and full of wonderful ideas and solutions, and is just encouraging the person to try a different approach.

Leaders often have a bigger vision and stronger belief in team members than individual team members have in themselves.

If you implement this strategy with your team, it’s likely you’ll still have some office gossip, but it might sound a bit different. More like this:

“Can you believe Lisa pulled Steven aside and discussed what was upsetting her?” The other team member might say, “I know. Isn’t that great that they worked through their misunderstanding?”

Amy Burkett

Amy Burkett

is the host of WTVP’s Leadership Series, a multi-regional Emmy Award-winning journalist, author of The 7D’s to Your Destiny and a certified John Maxwell trainer, speaker and coach.