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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Dealing with Toxic Gossip at Work

This article was originally published in July of 2013.

Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my main concerns at work is how we talk about each other—the staff lunchroom can be especially toxic. What feels most shocking to me is how our boss is often thrown under the bus.

I am having a hard time thinking of an appropriate comment to make as I feel that listening to these conversations implies my agreement. And I have to admit there have been times when I’ve piped up with a rude wise-crack or two, so I don’t want to seem like I’m above it all. There are times I just avoid the lunchroom and I know others do, too.

What suggestions do you have for responding to wisecracks made behind coworkers’ backs?

Staying In From the Lunch Room

Dear Staying In,

You’ve done a great job of describing a familiar problem. I bet many of us have been in the same situation. We’re joking around in the lunchroom, one-upping each other’s wisecracks, when somehow the topic turns to our boss or maybe to a colleague. We keep on with the jokes and banter, but at some point, it crosses the line from play to poison. As you said, we’re throwing someone under the bus—all in the name of fun.

In these situations, silence isn’t golden. It’s agreement. When we don’t speak up, we show our support for the people doing the badmouthing. We’re helping to throw the person under the bus.

It’s this kind of poisonous conversation that causes bad morale to spread across a team or organization. It begins with a seemingly innocuous joke, which is really the leading edge of an attack. Instead of saying something like, “I see it differently,” others in the conversation remain silent or add to the wisecrack, amplifying the attack.

The group is creating a villain story at someone’s expense, without stopping to question the story’s truth or giving the person a chance to respond. As the story is repeated and grows unchallenged, it becomes full of what the comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” It may be several steps away from the facts, but it feels true. And it poisons the workplace.

Why do we do this? Sometimes it’s because we don’t know the person’s true motives and we assume the worst. Jamaicans have a saying, “If you don’t know a man, you’ll invent him.” The implication is that we’ll invent him as an ogre. Few of us know our managers—especially senior leaders—really well. We aren’t privy to their information or motives. And as the saying suggests, we judge them harshly. We don’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes these conversations are as simple as failing to give the benefit of the doubt, but there is often more going on. Sometimes your colleague is motivated by jealousy, revenge, fear, or dislike. Regardless of the cause, you need to speak up when you see this inappropriate behavior.

Use CPR to decide what to say. CPR stands for Content, Pattern, and Relationship. CPR can help you think about a problem and decide how to focus your conversation.

Suppose a person at your table says, “Sure, the boss says she’s trying to improve staffing levels, but that’s just to shut us up. What she really means is ‘staphing‘ levels—you know like a staph infection!”

A statement like this may contain issues related to Content, Pattern, and Relationship. As a problem-solver, you can decide which issues are most central to you. You can use CPR to focus on the issues that are closest to the heart of your concerns.

Content: Addressing the content means you focus on the facts in the person’s statement. Focusing on content is usually the simplest and safest way to respond because you aren’t drawing any conclusions beyond what the person has just said. An example of addressing the content would be, “I don’t think she’s trying to shut us up. Why do you think that?” Addressing the content frames the problem as a question of facts. It focuses the discussion toward what your manager said and why your colleague doesn’t believe it.

Pattern: Suppose this comment is just one in a pattern of passive-aggressive comments this group uses to badmouth the boss. You might address this pattern by saying, “I like the way we kid around with each other, but not when we start to throw people under the bus—people who aren’t here to defend themselves.” Addressing the pattern focuses on your colleagues’ inappropriate behavior. It’s a tougher discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.

Relationship: The long-term impact of these corrosive conversations is the undermining of trust and respect. The relationship with the boss is put at risk. If you feel that people’s comments reveal a rupture in basic trust and respect for your boss, then you might address the relationship itself: “It sounds as if you’re questioning whether you can trust and respect her. Is that right? If that’s your concern, then I think you need to find a way to talk with her and hash it out.” Note that you may decide to have this conversation in private, instead of putting the person on the spot in front of everyone. Again, it’s a tough discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.

The mistake many problem-solvers make is to focus on content, the simple and safe route, when their true concern involves the pattern or relationship. They address a problem, but it’s not the problem they really care about.

This CPR skill can be used in a wide variety of situations, not just in confronting gossip about your boss. The next time you have a concern, use CPR to decide which part of the concern to address. CPR can help you focus on the heart of your gossip problem.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

18 thoughts on “Dealing with Toxic Gossip at Work”

  1. Peggy Salvatore

    Dear David, This was an excellent answer to a nettlesome problem. I just reposted this on our ASTD Eastern PA website blog today. Thank you for your wise words. Peggy Salvatore, ASTD Eastern PA Chapter President

  2. Steven Chamblee


    I see this as both a micro and macro problem in out society. While you addressed the question asked —and quite well, I might add— I think this problem has infiltrated deeply into our society. Even the national news spends considerable time on trivial and “gossipy” subjects. We have become a very factioned nation because of this “ignore the facts for the sake of a juicy morsel of gossip (that may or may not be true)” style of daily communications with each other.

    I plan to circulate your column widely (unedited, of course), in hopes of bringing some objectivity and common sense back to some troubled workplaces, and potentially, our country. I recognize that my fellow Americans have always had our differences, but we seem to have moved past respectful cooperation to perpetual argument. If we truly discussed issues, we would find our commonalities outweigh our differences.

  3. Erin Miller

    Excellent article! Thank you so much. I will be sharing this with my teams.

  4. Monica Kane

    Content: Why would a completely rational and reasonable person complain at lunch? Could it be that your coworkers are filling a need that they themselves are worried about. Throwing the boss under the bus can often be a cry for help. Have you ever felt that your boss doesn’t pay attention to the details? Or doesn’t take the time to identify the quality of issues at hand. My own personal need at work is to contribute, and frustration surfaces when I am trying and it seems I am continually let down by lack of information in the hands of decision makers. I may complain during lunch – looking for understanding of my need for ease and contribution not being met.

    When others complain, I try to find the need in their comments. With a need at hand, I can question my coworkers about the need, which offers peaceful support even when my guesses are not accurate, without the judgment of their behavior (villain story), or allowing things to continue down a darker path (agreement.)
    “Sounds like things would be so much easier for you if she considered meeting with you away from her phone so she could focus. Maybe she would trust your judgment a little more”
    Guesses: Need one – Ease of making decisions; Need two – trust;
    Suggestion for your coworker without “should’s” – meet away from distractions.
    All guesses, but engages coworker in dialog that doesn’t go toxic.

    Pattern: Coworker’s comments can be addressed a little more effectively, when needs are identified. I have, on occasion helped a coworker with workload because of lunch time comments. “I have noticed that you have complained about this for a while and nothing has been done. Can I help? I can print all of the documents for you this afternoon.” Even if I can’t help with the complaint – my coworkers feel heard and recognized for what is troubling them and can release some pent up frustration knowing that someone cares. Or you can help them identify a need in a friendly way. “Friend, you get yourself so wrapped up in the details. You do understand that you do that because you care so much, right? But, you are making yourself crazy expecting other people to work like you do.” It can be as simple as “you have been complaining about this for a while and it can’t keep going like it is. I’m worried about you, what are you going to do?”
    Relationship: So, how can I preserve the relationship of the seething coworker while remaining loyal to my values and needs? In the past, I would avoid them. I couldn’t see that I was in judgment of their behavior and deemed them a dangerous villain. Now, my honesty and values lead the inquiry of my coworker’s world. I avoid the attribution error that they ARE their comments, but rather a coworker looking for ways to meet their own needs. I decide what I want in my relationship to the people involved, and act in ways that support what I really want.
    Can I find that rational and reasonable person behind the comment? Can I fill their need? Can I be a part of the change I wish to see? Can I extend my friendship past toxic behavior and be open to the humanness that is there behind it all – to bring that humanness out into the light of awareness for positive change? It doesn’t always work, but it’s my goal. Honesty about my own values, check. Kindness and professionalism extended, check. Relationships valued, check.

  5. Hillary Hoban

    You must work at our facility! Lunch in our breakroom and work in our offices! I believe that you present a viable solution with Content Pattern Relationship.

    There will always be problems at work that need to be aired in a therapeutic manner. Really, people will talk until they are heard and reach some solution. I see 1 maybe 2 issues: how can we address concerns without taking them out on people? & How can we enjoy lunch? Dave gives a great start!

    I received this great article becauce of a co-worker (thanks, Chris!)

  6. Mike

    Although I agree that gossip can get out of control and do harm, I think your tactic of handling it can be considered an affront to a co-worker, almost confrontational, which in itself could alienate the person trying to prevent further harm by the gossip/criticism.

    For example, rather than say, “I don’t think she’s trying to shut us up. Why do you think that?” I instead typically perform a counter/deflect to redirect the conversation. Something like, “Now, to be fair, I’m sure that there’s budget limitations or higher-ups that are part of the equation for staffing levels. We just have to keep on them about the need for more staff. How busy are things in your area lately(insert co-worker), what could be done better to make things smoother?”

    The last thing I would want is to have folks feel like they’ll be “avoided” for such conversations, because that doesn’t solve the problem and only hides it. You don’t want people saying, “here they come, don’t talk bad about the boss.” You want people that can turn around a toxic gossip session into a productive conversation.

  7. Mike

    @Mike In fact, one could call it CDE, counter/deflect/empower.

    Counter the gossip/criticism “maybe they’re just having a bad day.”

    Deflect “Remember a couple weeks ago when you got a flat tire?”

    Empower “Hey, what can we suggest to have them think harder about the problems we’re having. Who’s got a solution?”

  8. Elizabeth Richards

    A co-worker started a trend when he started saying “My US West buzzer just went off.” He’d had extensive training at a previous job at that organization on workplace behavior (discremenation, etc.) We all started using it, even those of us who’d never worked at US West started using it when conversations got close to That Line. It was a remarkably effective way to give people permission to call time out on a conversation–oddly without appearing to judge the other person.

  9. Dealing with Toxic Gossip at Work | Motivation ...

    […] Visit the Crucial Skills blog to read David Maxfield's answer to this question: What suggestions do you have for responding to wisecracks made behind coworkers' backs?  […]

  10. Dealing with Toxic Gossip at Work | The Wise Le...

    […] Visit the Crucial Skills blog to read David Maxfield's answer to this question: What suggestions do you have for responding to wisecracks made behind coworkers' backs?  […]

  11. Amanda Morrow, BSN, RN

    Co-worker Terror by Amanda Morrow, BSN, RN Staff and Patient Education Consultant
    Yes, Terror, call it what you want but bullying and other types of verbal and physical or psychological abuse terrorizes its victims. I have been teaching standard Lateral Violence and Preventing Workplace Bullying classes over the last year. I have reached out to over 500 of the staff from clerical, laborers, to clinical staff including mental health and medical professionals. An article review demonstrates little change in behavior maybe from not reporting but there is not a lot of qualitative data to show change.
    This program began as a small section in a preceptor class where preceptors are encouraged to protect their student from the probability of being subjected to some type of lateral violence or bullying. Research shows students are frequently the recipients of disrespectful treatment by employees. I was asked by several nurses to bring the Lateral Violence portion of the class to their area. They felt their co-workers would benefit from the information. Their concerns included poor morale, sick leave abuse, distrust of coworkers and disrespect for leadership.
    Having trained in communication, ethics, employee relations as well as my nursing training and practice, I have become passionate about increasing the awareness of the terror that our attitude and behaviors have on our coworkers. As if the terror of our co-workers wasn’t enough, even Joint Commission is on the alert for behaviors that are putting our patients at risk. Incidences of medication errors, improper procedures and even falls are being associated with some kind of behavior. Here is an example: If a nursing assistant is intimidated by a nurse, he/she may not report a patients decline as soon as it could have been. Another example: “That is basic nursing!”, and one more: “Get me a real nurse!”.
    Why is it that we feel its ok to hurt another human being? Most of us would intervene if we saw an animal in a hot car. Some would even stop and help someone get up if they fell. We would even send Christmas cards to people we will never see. But we hurt the people we work closest to on a daily basis. We expect others to jump in to help us out, we expect others to give is the lighter load, we expect others to be polite, we expect others to be considerate. What is our role in all this? Could it be me? Did I say or do something to hurt you, did I do something to deserve having my patient put at risk?
    Is your common speech foul? Maybe we should have a review of professional behavior. So you don’t cuss. Does your voice volume increase and intensify with stress? What happens when you need help but no one is available. Does your attitude change, does your ill patient feel your anger? Do you come to work late? Bet your coworkers were thinking some negative thoughts about then. Now they are going to give you your assignment and rely on you. I could go on and on, lots of stories to go around but let’s talk about resolution.
    What can I/we/you do to have a positive impact on the morale, the workload, the patient safety risks, patient and staff satisfaction and my own physical and mental health? Well, start with talking about it. Consider starting a peer support group from your coworkers. Take some time to communicate. Use your lunch, talk a walk with a peer support person, take a coworker with you to confront a bully or abuser. Stick up for each other, stick up for your patient. Be an example to your coworkers, supervisors and leadership. We expect leadership to have some kind of special professionalism but we don’t expect it from each other. Hold each other accountable. Accept criticism, use it as an opportunity to improve or to make positive change. Complement each other for good behavior.
    Everyone makes mistakes, forgive. Natural human behavior is survival. Stress creates fear, fear kicks in our natural responses,. Recognize your own feelings and reactions. Ask your friends and family to help you to identify areas that you could make positive change. Stressed, focus on relaxation techniques. Weak, focus on building strength. Feeling depressed, get some sunshine. Sore, stretch. Nervous, too much coffee? Low esteem, do something that makes someone feel better. Start your day with a smile, follow your smile, make it proud.

  12. Amanda Prock

    The current organization I have been involved with does not exhibit ethical communication practices from employee to employee, and especially towards our boss. Customer service is wonderful, and everyone communicates well between our store, and headquarters, and even other stores, but the employees do not communicate ethically.

    The boss seems to listen and take into consideration, but instead of being a leader, the boss is a people-pleaser. Yes, employees should be happy in the workplace, but instead of maintaining the company standards, sometimes they get pushed aside to meet employee needs. For example, two part-time assistant managers constantly bicker about who gets more hours. Company policy says they should be equal, but as the boss favors one over the other, that employee gets at least 15 more hours a week to work. The boss avoids the other employee as much as possible in order to not have to answer questions as to why the employee has so few hours for the week. This is an example of how she has little empathy for one employee, and could also be called “moral deafness” (Johannesen, 2008, p. 166). This causes employees to become frustrated with how the situation was handled, and therefore, they begin to talk bad about her, and just not act in an ethical manner.

    Another main problem is gossip. From what I have noticed, almost every employee is angry or frustrated with another and instead of talking to the person directly, they talk to other employees about it instead. This usually results in words getting twisted and taken out of context (Johannesen, 2008, p. 164). When this begins to happen, I can just feel the tension when I walk into the store. The boss is almost always the topic of the gossip session, and it is extremely frustrating as an employee to have to deal with that.

    Johannesen, R., Valde, K., & Whedbee, K. (2008). Ethics in human communication. (6th ed.). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press Inc.

    Amanda Prock
    Drury University
    Elementary Education Undergraduate Student

  13. lambertc455christina

    I see most gossip as a symptom and not a root problem. It usually takes place because of a break down in action or communication. In my work environment, gossip is a sign that an employee feels the boss is not listening or the boss is not approachable. What should an employee do if the boss dismisses an issue that is important to an employee. Or what should they do when they fear losing their job if they were to address an issue with the boss? I wonder if a more sustainable solution to gossip is conflict resolution training for the entire office.? If everyone from the boss to the admin assistant completed conflict resolution training, the entire office would have common language to use when they feel the boss hasn’t heard them or they want to address an emotionally charged issue.

    1. justwanttocomment

      Excellent points both Monica and Christina. I think these are very valid points, and are similar to what our office experiences as well. There is always a root to the problem we see at he surface. In or office if you say something or provide ideas, you are immediately knocked down or ignored and are afraid to say anything further. The (“newer”) boss micro-manages to the Nth degree and thus the workers have no voice in the operation. All decisions are final, and this is a government office no less. If you disagree with the boss, you are on his “list” and everything from the type of work projects you get to pay raises, etc are negatively or adversely affected. You cannot bring up any difficult subjects as he does not want to deal with them (or take the time to deal with them), personnel or otherwise. I don’t know what the answer is (other than to leave the office which, being close to retirement, is not an option for me anyway, but the millennial workers are leaving), but I feel there has to be ways to deal with this type of a situation when, what I feel is, a mistake has been made with the hiring of a manager such as this. He clearly was not ready to take on the task, and before we lose all of our good workers, I would like to see change. I try and do things for the betterment of the office and my co-workers, but I can only do so much with my limited authority and time. I have worked here for a long time and we have always prided ourselves on honestly, consistency, and the quality of work we produce. That is all changing with the new management and his “it’s good enough” opinion, or “not following the law” procedures. As far as my work goes, I agree, all I can do is this as well: “Honesty about my own values, check. Kindness and professionalism extended, check. Relationships valued, check. I just wish more could be done. Ideas or thoughts anyone? Is it worth going to the Director of the Dept and having a conversation or would that look like I am not a “team player”, tattling on the boss?

  14. Crucial Conversations: Dealing With Gossip At Work | LVHNDaily

    […] According to Crucial Conversations®, a helpful way to deal with this behavior is to think of CPR. No, not the CPR colleagues are thinking of – although that is good to know too. For this situation, the CPR acronym stands for content, pattern and relationship. Read more about how communication and conflict resolution method on the Crucial Conversations® blog, “Crucial Skills”. […]

  15. Mike Radke

    You have done a nice job identifying the options to address toxic gossip. These may be the way to address and make progress. having this crucial conversation may get colleagues to recognize the problems gossip causes and reduce the instances of gossip and piling-on to remain part of the insider group.
    There are however some background issues you might want to comment on. As you have said previously, context is important. It is far more difficult to address gossip in a context where there is a pervasive culture that gossip is just how staff deals with discomfort. In such a context confronting the gossip, even with the best of intentions and using the most appropriate strategy, can isolate you or put you on the other side of both the culture and the gossip. Care to comment?

  16. davidmaxfield

    Yes, I agree that cultural norms matter. I think it’s important to determine the function or purpose the gossip is serving. You may want to find a healthier way to satisfy that purpose.
    For example, maybe I want to “test” my opinion with others before sharing it with my boss. But this “testing” becomes toxic gossip. I still need to test my opinion, but perhaps in a more private way.
    When an organization has culture where gossip is pervasive, it’s important to ask why. Perhaps there is a breakdown in legitimate communication between groups or levels. Solving this breakdown will go a long way to reducing the toxic gossip.

    Thanks for adding your ideas.

  17. Victoria

    Could be about the boss but lately is about another co-worker that is not welcome because that person is from another country. People today just live from gossip and they do not care if they can be CRUEL. No more respect, or consideration. Today is who care. Is sad but that is true. I can tell I have been there almost my hall live. Also gossip when you are old.

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