Reframing Gossip in the Workplace

Gossip is a false and shallow attempt at connection with another person, yet ironically it serves to disconnect us further, writes Tamara Yakaboski.

January 8, 2020

Probably almost all of us in higher education have experienced gossip in the workplace. For various reasons, the topic is near and dear to my (scarred) heart. While I have wanted to write about it for a while, I have needed to understand it better. I specifically wondered why we do it. Then I could learn how to change my perspective and relationship with it.

Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown talks about the behavior of gossip as a betrayer of trust and a symptom of shame-based organizational work culture. In Daring to Lead, Brown operationalizes seven behaviors for creating trust. One is maintaining the vault, or keeping and maintaining confidences and information. For example, when someone shares personal or private information about another person, they are sending the message not to trust them with inner thoughts and feelings. Essentially, if they are going to talk about someone else, they will talk about you at some point. But in that moment, this pattern is what Brown calls “common enemy intimacy.”

Gossip is a false and shallow attempt at connection with another person. Ironically, however, gossip serves to disconnect us further rather than create intimacy. It disconnects us in three ways. First, we create a barrier of untrustworthiness between us and the person we are gossiping to. Second, we detach from the person we are gossiping about at their expense. And finally, we disconnect from ourselves, because this is an action taken from a place of personal fear and shame. All of this exacerbates toxic or unhealthy workplace relationships and culture.

About three years ago, I reached the pinnacle point of gossip’s toxic impact on me -- mentally, emotionally and physically. The gossip was never scandalous, but it was enough for me to respond with feeling anxious, to undermine my efforts and to create questions in people’s minds about my abilities. I repeatedly would hear gossip about me sourced from the usual suspects. It was a sort of “mean girls grow up and earn graduate degrees” scene. I was perplexed and hurt. The individuals were on the opposite side of campus, and I had never worked directly with them. I had never even had a conversation with some of them.

I would think about it often. I would wonder why they continued to gossip. I would work harder. I wondered why their colleagues and supervisors did not put a stop to it. I would be nicer and more people pleasing. I wondered if they knew patriarchy taught them to tear down other women. I would teach more in my classes about the damages of competition within patriarchy. It was this back-and-forth toxic pattern. They would lash out; I would respond in overachieving behaviors. But my fretting and actions did nothing to curtail their behaviors and beliefs.

What I realize now is there was nothing I could have done. It was not my issue. Somewhere in their story about themselves and their place at work, I had become a person to blame for whatever was going on for them. And whatever that was, it was real to them, and the gossip reflected their own wounds and issues.

Before I came to understand that, however, I stressed to the point of giving my inner power over to it. It, in fact, made me sick: I contracted a rather severe case of shingles that followed an even more severe stress injury a few months earlier. My immune system let me know loud and clear that I was in the throes of toxic stress for far too long, and I needed to change.

That was the source of my turning point in my relationship with gossip that helped me better understand the damaging role it plays in the higher education workplace. Now I follow a few principles to reframe my thinking whenever gossip rears its ugly head -- whether it is about me or someone else.

Is it gossip or information? Some information is helpful to know as a part of a community. For example, I will often be told information about how someone is having a hard time because one of their loved ones is sick or they are going through a breakup. In such cases, I try to respond with, “Oh, thank you for telling me. Do you mind if I reach out to them with that information to check on them?” If the response is, “Sure,” then I reach out to offer validation or support in a caring way. If the other person’s response is, “No, don’t,” then I question the source and accuracy of the information or the intent of sharing. People seem inclined to share news and information, so determining the intent -- whether gossip or information sharing -- is one of my first steps.

People’s opinion of you is not your business. Gossip will often come to you because someone thinks they need to tell you what others have said about you. I suspect that is another side of wanting connection but not knowing how to authentically create it -- or maybe people think it creates allegiances or expresses loyalty. Regardless, it is not your business what anyone thinks of you. Reclaiming the belief that it is not your business reasserts you as the one in control of your own thoughts and beliefs. The only opinion about you that matters is your own.

Gossip reflects the wounds of the gossiper. Gossiping reflects something internal to the gossiper more than it ever will about you or the subject of the story. This concept was instrumental for me in holding compassion for the gossiper rather than reciprocating with my own verbal spewing. When I thought about my own situation, I would run through a series of internal wounds that people were projecting on to me. Such as, maybe they felt threatened because they were insecure and jealous or loaded down in their own shame wounds. Or maybe they were dissatisfied with their situation or position at work or in their personal relationships. Whatever it was, the gossipers created someone else as a problem. Likely it is more comfortable to lash out than look inward and hold our own actions or feelings accountable. But we can address our own issues and what triggers our reactions more so than we can do anything about those activated in others.

And finally, think before you speak. Gossip in the workplace isn’t solely about other people. Many of us are motivated at some point to engage in gossip-like communication. We have been socialized in gossip as a form of connection or the belief of common enemy intimacy. Thus, developing self-awareness takes time and is an ongoing project. In addition to self-reflection, we can develop skills to talk directly with people rather than about them.

This type of self-work is vital for changing a toxic workplace culture fueled by gossipy behaviors. Connected to this is also questioning others when they share gossip and helping bring awareness to what type of workplace we all want to cultivate. We can create awareness around what gossip is, what it looks like and the damaging effects of it in the workplace. We can start by doing our own self-work to reframe and shift to what authentic connections and information sharing looks like when it comes from a place of caring and looking out for one another. This shift requires personal accountability and awareness, as well as holding other people responsible for their behaviors.

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Tamara Yakaboski is a life coach and consultant for higher education professionals and faculty. In her day job, she is a professor of higher education and department chair at University of Northern Colorado. For more, see


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