Gossip: Good Sign, Bad sign, or Just a Sign?

The Harvard Business Review just came out with an article “Stop Enabling Gossip on Your Team“. Yet in 2013 that same magazine published an article entitled “Go Ahead and Gossip.”

Check EngineAs a consultant I spend a month or two at a school district and then move on. The level of gossip in an organization is immediately clear to an outsider. I have come to quickly understand that gossip is an indicator of a troubled system.

Employees who have no method for dealing with their legitimate concerns find an escape valve through gossip. Punishing gossip is like putting a piece of tape over your “Check Engine” light.

From a few days of listening to gossip, an outsider can pretty accurately assess an organization.

District A: Inexperienced leadership, unappreciated or blamed employees, a shape-up or get-out attitude, fresh (“younger”) ideas are more important than experience. Even at other districts and in other counties I hear gossip about this district.

Result: Turnover, especially in management. Institutional knowledge almost zero. Lots of great employees are leaving, not just a few bad apples. Young idealists take their place. Will they succeed? Everyone hopes so.

District B: Out-of-touch superintendent, huge churn in other leadership positions, dysfunctional board, underpaid yet loyal employees who desperately seek competent leadership.

Result: The district functions, despite vacancies and dysfunction in many management positions. Schools actively resist the district office and hide out of sight as much as possible.

District C: Gossip?  I hear almost none. Unions and the board are not shy about putting district leadership on the spot. Their concerns are of treated as urgent.

Years ago I was about to take a promotional position at a new district. Someone who used to work there gave me the scoop on a few employees, such as “she’ll be nice to your face but she’ll stab you in the back.” I appreciated the heads-up.

Yet this can perpetuate the thinking that bad apples make the organization bad. Now, older and wiser, I understand that allowing bad apples to operate with impunity is a system dysfunction. District A is trying to address this. Along with other “reform” districts, they still haven’t gotten it right, because their approach dislodges many good employees as well. If they could create a safe culture for speaking truth to power, they might get closer to the right approach. In the meantime it might just be a good idea to pay attention to the gossip.



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