“Management by walking around” is a time-tested method to stay connected with the real work of an organization. When you listen, learn and create unstructured conversations, everyone is better informed. Sometimes problems are solved or confusion clarified on the spot.
There is another free-form type of conversation between managers and employees which is not productive: management by gossiping around. Workplace gossip is generally rumor or exaggeration about others, especially about their behaviors. It can relieve stress, and deflect or assign blame. It might just be a way to make the gossipers feel better about themselves.
I wish it was uncommon, but we see evidence that managers gossip with employees too often. Whether a misguided attempt to create a relationship, or just blowing off steam, gossip is harmful.
When managers gossip with employees, about employees, or about other managers, several bad things happen.
Loss of respect. The gossiping manager loses every time. Employees hold managers to a higher standard of behavior than their own peers. A manager who gossips cannot be trusted with personal details and private information. A manager who gossips will gossip about you! What does the manager know about you that could be embarrassing or misunderstood?
Loss of influence. Managers get things done through a combination of formal authority and informal influence. Sometimes unilateral decisions must be made, but real advances and engagement happen in the influence zone. Gossiping managers lose the high ground that provides a foundation for influence. Managers who gossip trade a momentary rush for long-term loss of effectiveness.
Loss of focus. Gossip is idle conversation, not problem solving or relationship-building. Gossiping managers would rather talk about an employee who may be part of a problem than resolve that problem. Gossip is easier than real work and it prevents true progress.
Loss of opportunity. Employees with real work problems will not come to gossiping managers for help. Why reach out to a manager who gossips about members of the team? Managers trying to be “one of the peeps” by joining these high calorie/low nutrition conversations hurt their own chances to learn about real issues.
Future limits. Finally, gossiping managers put a lid on their own careers. The only thing worse than a loose-lipped manager is a senior leader who talks trash. A fish rots from the head down and senior leadership sets the tone. Good leadership will not ask bad leadership to join its team.
Employees living with a gossiping manager have choices to make. Start by avoiding gossip. Silence is a good response to inappropriate comments. Even better is a question: “If that is true, what can you and I do to make the situation better?”
Employees suffering with gossiping teammates might be even more proactive: “Gossip will not make anything better. What positive steps can we take?”
An old proverb applies: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”. Spend more time on ideas and events.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.