The Gossip Triangle

Getting a Grip - Personal workplace advice from Handshake 2.0 Dear Getting a Grip:  I have a co-worker who came to our business from a competitor.  This person still has friends in his previous company with whom he socializes.  I have been told by one of those workers that our new employee is gossipy and has given some inside information to those employees “off the record.”  What do you suggest I do about this?  Our company’s inside information is sensitive and important to our competitiveness.

Dear Gossipy:  Three points define a triangle and that’s the communication pattern you’ve got going – triangulation.  When someone tells another what he or she really should be telling someone else – leaving the third person out – that creates all kinds of angles for conflict.

Let’s start with point A, the worker from the other company who told you about the gossiper.  Ideally, when A first heard the gossiper – we’ll call the gossiper point B – he or she would have changed the subject.  If B persisted in gossiping, point A would have excused himself or herself.

B didn’t do that.  B choose the less-than-courageous route of listening to the information, then telling you about it to assuage B’s guilt about hearing what was unfair for B to hear.

That leaves you, point C.  What is C to do?

Triangles of people are transformed into teams of people with straightforward communication.

The challenge you face is that, since you did not witness the gossip, you are subject to the vagaries of human perception.  Two eye witnesses, both experiencing the same physical reality, are notorious for giving entirely different versions of what happened. 

If you, C, confront B, the gossiper, he will likely say that A didn’t perceive the situation correctly.  Then he’ll proceed to, “And who are you to question me?  You weren’t even there.”  Thus a jagged line of resentful workplace communication is born.

If you ask A, the listener and teller, to confront B, A has already demonstrated that A’s integrity isn’t up to it.  Point A will be shown a shortcoming A doesn’t want to acknowledge.  Point A will blame you.  Thus a second jagged line of resentful workplace communication is born.

Point C, you might want to gently ask yourself this:  What were you doing listening to a competitor’s worker, A, tell you negative gossip about your own co-worker, B?  While it’s not an absolute truth and judgment calls must be made, listening to someone talk about someone else is rarely in the best interests of anyone.

Getting a Grip:  Regardless of the competiveness of a company’s product or service, the best companies succeed through teamwork.  You’ve got a company teamwork problem.

At this point, you have no action to take that will solve your problem.  As I’ve mentioned before, people tend to be consistent.  If your new co-worker, B, isn’t a good guy, he’ll demonstrate that again.  When you are a witness, instead of listening, that will be the time to speak up with straight talk.

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Need to start “Getting a Grip” on a personal problem at work?  E-mail your question to [email protected].

Getting a Grip, a workplace advice column for Handshake 2.0, is written by Anne Giles Clelland.  Getting a Grip regrets that not all questions can be answered, personal replies are not possible, and questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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Getting a Grip appears monthly in Valley Business FRONT.

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