Monday, September 28, 2009

Pillow Talk

This story has been told many different ways. I’m going to tell it the way I know it:

A mother found that her daughter was engaging in gossip with her friends and other family members. She decided to teach her daughter a lesson. One day she gave the daughter a feather pillow and said, “take this feather pillow, rip it open and pour all the feathers out of the second floor window of the house. When you’re done come and see me.”

The daughter went upstairs, ripped open the feather pillow and shook out the feathers from the second floor window of her house. She told her mother she had done as instructed. The mother then said, “now go and collect all of the feathers and stuff them back into the pillow.”

The daughter searched for hours trying to find each and every feather. She came back to her mother and said, “I tried to collect them all but I can not.” The mother sent the daughter back out telling her she must find every feather. The daughter searched until it grew dark and came in with tears in her eyes and said, “I just can’t find them all, I have tried and tried they just scattered to far.” The mother looked at the daughter with her half full pillow and she said, “every time you gossip it is like cutting open a feather pillow and shaking it in the wind.”

I love the way this story illustrates one of the truths about gossip. Gossip is a virus and once you speak it into existence it takes on a life of its own. It is also the first step on the road to becoming a subversive employee. Subversive employees are a serious issue in any organization. They are not just underperforming they are recruiting others to their way of thinking. When it comes to preventing subversion keeping gossip from taking a foothold is the ounce of prevention that will save you a pound of cure.

So how do you stop gossip in its tracks? Do not worry, it does not involve having staff members cut open feather pillows and then scrounging around trying to pick the feathers up all day. There is a much easier method that can be employed by anyone, regardless of whether you are a front-line with no direct reports or the CEO.

Each of us has a powerful tool at our disposal that we can wield to affect the behavior of others around us. It’s called “validation.” We do it all the time in our relations with others. Validation is a powerful motivation of human behavior. As social creatures we want to see that we are operating within the social norms of the groups we interact with. When we get validated we gain input on how our behavior is perceived. Validation, in this context, is attention in the form of feedback. When someone laughs at a joke you tell or tells you that your point of view is not correct you are being validated. You are receiving feedback. Gossip thrives on validation and is often engaged in by people as a means of receiving validation (hint hint).

Validation, as a feedback mechanism not only sends powerful messages when it is received, it also sends powerful messages when it withheld. I would imagine that many of us do not realize when we are withholding validation, yet we do it all the time. When someone says something to you and you just shrug it off and move on in the conversation you are withholding validation. Becoming conscious of when you validate and do not validate is a powerful tool that can be used to affect people’s behavior.

Withholding validation is the most effective way to kill gossip. If you recognize gossip and refuse to give it your attention the gossip will stop coming to you. In a leadership position this can send a powerful message to your group. If you are not in a leadership position it can send a powerful message to those around you that are. Either way you are affecting the environment around you in a positive way.

This is easy to do when the gossip isn’t about you or someone you know. When you’re being told something about yourself, it can be very hard not to validate it. I still say withholding validation is the most effective tool, yet if you must validate do so wisely.

To deal with gossip wisely you have to attempt to extract the element that makes something gossip, hearsay. Questions like, “what happened specifically?” or “Did you see this for yourself?” are powerful tools for removing hearsay from a story, especially when followed up with “what are you hoping will happen by telling me about this?”

There are times when simply ignoring gossip will not stop it. There are times when leaders must give the problem attention. The first step most organizations take is having a meeting with the senior leadership and talking about how they must squash the gossip coming from their departments. This leads to sharply worded “zero tolerance” memos which are about as effective as trying to put air in a tire with a ceiling fan. There is a much easier way. Tune in next week to find out how to kill gossip at the organizational level.

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