Dealing With Passive Agressive Gossip

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on May 20, 2013

Emotional Vampires At WorkDid you hear about….?

Some gossip is just talk, but gossip can also be the weapon of choice for a passive-aggressive attack.  Which is which?  Sometimes the person attacking you doesn’t know, but you should.  Passive aggression, at least the most troublesome kind, is by definition, unconscious.  The worst offenders often see themselves as nice people being helpful.  They get to say all sorts of nasty things about people and nobody gets mad at them, because they didn’t say it, somebody else did.  Well, they did say it, but they were just sharing some information with you as a favor, because you ought to know.  But don’t tell anybody.

Ann sidles up to Theresa in the break room.  “What did you do to get Randy so ticked off?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Theresa says.  “I talked to him yesterday at the project meeting.  He didn’t seem any more ticked off than usual.”

“Well, I heard that this morning he was up in Delon’s office saying he couldn’t work with you and he wanted you off the project.”

“You heard him say that?” Theresa asks.

“I didn’t hear it, Jamie did.  I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but I thought you’d want to know.  Randy was saying that your nitpicking was slowing things down, that the project would have been out the door two weeks ago, if you hadn’t –”

“Yeah, it would have been out the door with all Randy’s sloppy calculations.  His numbers were way off.  Delon knows about it.  He saw all the spreadsheets.  Did he say anything to Randy about that?”

“Jamie didn’t tell me, but you know how Delon is sometimes.”

“You mean a wuss?”

The dynamics of passive aggressive gossip are as vague, contorted and confusing.  In what other situation can you come up to someone, insult them, and then expect them to thank you for sharing.  Not only that, you might give them more ammunition to use against someone else.  How long do you think it will be before the word is out that Theresa thinks Delon is a wuss?

Rumors can get started anywhere in an organization, but if it weren’t for the passive aggressive potential, they would never spread so far so quickly.   Passive aggressive people don’t spread rumors intending to create grudges and factions; they just want a little drama.  For them, gossiping about co-workers is a major source of entertainment.  It’s more fun than the company softball team and you don’t have to be a jock to play.

Gossip usually takes you by surprise.  Instead of thinking about what is going on, you are likely to react with the first thing that comes to mind, which is seldom a good strategy in a business situation.  Like Theresa, you hear something about yourself that isn’t true.  It makes you angry, and then and there you try to set the record straight, not stopping to think that by doing so, you are adding to the drama, and are now a member of the cast.

What should you do instead?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Analyze the Situation before You Respond – When you hear a rumor from a helpful person like Ann, always ask yourself  Why is she telling me this?  This one little question will protect you from so much of the harm gossip can do.  You may not know right away why someone is giving you negative information, so don’t say anything until you do.
  • Assume the Mike is On – This is a good assumption to make about anything you say about anyone at work.  Especially if you are saying it to someone who is telling you something that was told to her in confidence.
  • Control Your Response — Moment to moment, what keeps people gossiping is the listener’s response. Watch people in the break room and see all the encouragement rumormongers get from nods, smiles, open mouths, people leaning conspiratorially closer, not to mention adding embellishments.  Gossip is a performance.  If there is no audience response, the show is over. Controlling your response takes real effort of will.  People like Ann who share negative stories about you are generally not doing it out of friendship.  They want a reaction.  They’d like you to get mad and maybe retaliate, which will give them more to talk about.  There is nothing about this pattern that will in any way benefit you.
  • Do the Unexpected, Answer Bad with Good — Whenever gossips say something negative about someone, say something positive.  Remember what happened when Dorothy threw water on the Wicked Witch of the West?  This unexpected response will have a similar effect on people who are spreading toxic rumors.  They may not evaporate, but their pretenses will.  Think about what would have happened if Theresa had said this to Ann.“Randy has been under a lot of stress like all of us have on this project, but he’s competent and always professional.  I’m sure if there is any dispute, we can work it out.”  
  • Spread Positive Gossip — Take the above technique even further.  Say good things about people.  If the idea of positive gossip seems like an oxymoron, that’s all the more reason to try it.  It couldn’t hurt, and may help.
  • Be Discrete — If you have something negative to say to someone, talk directly and in private.  When you do this, don’t tell that person what he or she did that was bad.  Instead, tell the person your reaction and ask if that was the intention – When you made the comment about my report, I felt put down; was that what you meant to do?And always tell people what you would like them to do instead.  Don’t set up a situation in which they have to admit they were wrong in order for you to get what you want.

If you work in an office where gossip and backbiting make it difficult to come in mornings realize that it takes two to tango.  If enough people follow the above advice, the most toxic rumors will simply die on the grapevine. Let it start with you.

Be safe; be well; be at peace,

Please NOTE:  Albert J. Bernstein PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Speaker and Business Consultant, and author of Emotional Vampires At Work, which can be purchased here.  He is guest blogging Dr. K’s blog while Dr. K takes a blogging sabbatical.


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