Don’t let employees turn a two-way problem into a three- (or four-, or five-) way mess
Let’s face it: Even the most skilled manager, backed by the firmest policy, isn’t going to be able to rid the workplace of all gossip.
People WILL talk; that’s human nature. “Did you see Mary’s new haircut? I think she’s got a date tonight with that hunky guy who came to see her last week.” That kind of gossip is relatively harmless and probably not worth a manager’s time.
But managers can — and should — contain what may be the most damaging manifestation of office gossip: triangulation.
The vicious triangle
Triangulation is having an issue with someone and talking about it with somebody else, or more than one somebody. Why is this so damaging? It’s pretty obvious: When an employee triangulates a problem, he or she spreads it and magnifies it, without doing anything to solve it.
So how should managers approach triangulation?
Start by laying the groundwork. Let your team or department know that some degree of conflict is to be expected whenever a group of people work together. Also let them know that you — and your organization — have certain expectations about how people will handle conflict.
What you expect
Among those expectations: If an employee has an issue with a co-worker, they’ll talk about it directly with the other person. And if, for some reason, they’re hesitant to do that, they’ll bring the issue to you, the manager. When they do that, they’re not triangulating, because you have the power to sort out whatever’s wrong.
Do you want to ban triangulating conversations altogether? Maybe, maybe not.
It can be dicey to prohibit people from speaking to co-workers. This could be considered harassment, or even a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees’ right to discuss work-related issues.
But that problem is easy enough to handle. You could say it’s OK for employees to speak to a third party before confronting the co-worker with whom they have a bone to pick — they might want to get advice on the best way to broach the issue — as long as they firmly intend to speak directly the co-worker afterward. And you could insist on an action step — for example, insisting that they set a day and time for that direct discussion.
Managers set the tone
And of course, managers need to set a good example.
If the manager talks about employees’ deficient performance or behavior to their co-workers, everybody’s going to get the idea that it’s OK. Successful avoidance of triangulation begins at the top.
Edited remarks from the Rapid Learning Institute webinar Gossip, Gab, and the Grapevine: How to Neutralize Its Negative Impact by Hunter Lott
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