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What’s the Optimal Workplace for Your Organization?



As we reach the two-year mark of the pandemic, now is the right time for many leaders to rethink how and where their employees work and collaborate. Should businesses call employees back into the office or leave them working remotely? Is it time to try out a new way of working all together? Lost in the ongoing debate, particularly in the popular media, is a simple insight: There is no one right answer because managers need to tailor their working environment to the business needs of their organization. This decision can be tough: recent surveys find that what employees think works best for them may limit the potential of the business as a whole.

To help in this process, we propose a framework to guide managers on identifying the optimal work configuration for maximizing the effectiveness of their knowledge-driven organization. These insights draw upon over a dozen large-sample empirical projects and case studies we’ve conducted both before and during the pandemic, across different industries. Our research suggests that managers need to account for two key organizational features to identify their most effective working model: size and growth orientation. Depending on where an organization falls on those two dimensions, we recommend that managers implement one of four stylized working configurations: a stand-alone office or campus, hybrid with flexible space, coworking environment, or fully remote. Each has benefits when it comes to two difficult trade-offs: collaborative creativity versus individual productivity, and the agility to change and expand versus coordination.

Unfortunately, we see too many managers today wavering on making a decision and falling into half-hearted working configurations. There is no cutting the baby in half here: choosing a working orientation requires making these trade-offs. But decisively implementing one of the four working configurations optimizes on what the organization needs at the expense of what it can thrive without.

Mapping Your Needs to Your Office

Based on our research, we have identified two questions about where your organization is going and where it is today to help you determine which of the four models is right for you. First, what is your strategy for future growth? Second, what is the size of the organization you need right now?

What is your strategy for future growth?

First, you need to decide whether creative innovation or efficient execution is more central to your strategic goals. If fostering creativity is paramount to your business, your workplace needs to bring knowledge together by bringing people together, ideally in person. If execution is your primary objective, your business must make sure that individual contributors are as efficient as possible in their own work; being around others may actually distract from the job that needs to be done and impede efficiency.

What is the size of your organization?

Second, it’s important to recognize that small businesses and large enterprises need to rethink office design differently. On the one hand, large enterprises have access to a rich base of expertise and talent right at home, but the challenges can arise from coordinating that activity at scale. On the other hand, a small business can be nimble and agile, but there is a much smaller pool of knowledge to draw on. With the right workplace that plays on your strengths and addresses your weaknesses, however, a smaller business can position itself to grow into a large enterprise and a large enterprise can stay agile like a smaller startup.

To identify which your business falls into, the U.S. Small Business Administration provides a useful classification for identifying whether your organization is large or small; depending on the industry of your business, the range of what is considered a small organization is wide, but for many services or technology businesses, 100 employees is a good rule of thumb to start with. For really knowledge-intensive work — like development of new technology — our research suggests the cutoff can be much lower: even 10 employees or less in some high-tech sectors.

Identifying the Optimal Workplace for Your Organization

After assessing your organization along these two dimensions, your company can be categorized into one of four stylized working configurations: stand-alone office, hybrid with flexible space, coworking environment, or fully remote. We outline the benefits each below, and offer examples of organizations that have implemented each configuration well.

Stand-alone office or campus: For creativity-oriented large enterprises.

Your top resource is your people: your employees are the fountain of knowledge that drive the creativity you need. Thus, your workplace needs to facilitate what scholars refer to as knowledge recombination among your staff; this is the process by which innovation arises when existing knowledge is combined in novel ways. Our research shows that knowledge recombination works best when you bring people physically together. Why? Because knowledge transfer — especially the type that is not written down or easily codified — is easiest face-to-face and aided by other non-verbal cues. Immediate feedback and updating are crucial for well-functioning discussions and brainstorming.

This means that a Zoom meeting isn’t enough, since not all the knowledge translates well through a webcam and virtual meetings don’t often serendipitously take place in the moment. You need to bring people together both so they can brainstorm in a conference room at the whiteboard, and also to create situations where people can run into each other in the hallway on the walk to the bathroom, elevator, kitchen (or at the proverbial water cooler). Larger organizations have more opportunities to benefit from these happenstance opportunities: a five-person company can have 10 possible interactions at the water cooler, but a 10-person company has as many as 45. You can exploit that size for exponential creative opportunities.

At the same time, a large enterprise faces a coordination challenge. Across functions and products, your people need to communicate regularly and easily to make sure they advance in the right direction as we show in our research in partnership with Google. Thus, you need to bring people together not only to drive innovation, but to engage in active coordination between employees where they can iterate towards common goals going forward, or resolve bottlenecks towards existing goals, like if one team is holding up another.

Large enterprises can deliver on both knowledge recombination and active coordination by choosing to centrally gather employees in-person in a stand-alone office or campus. Consider Apple: there are plenty of reasons that Apple is Apple, but the company is clearly thoughtful about how they assemble their people. Just a few months before his death, Steve Jobs went to the Cupertino City Council and laid out his vision for a futuristic circular house of glass that would foster creativity and collaboration. Jobs believed that serendipitous moments that lead to innovation are lost when a building’s design doesn’t encourage collaboration

To shape these social interactions, mangers need to pay attention to the architecture of their office: creating spaces for groups to congregate in or for individuals to incidentally see one another as they pass through increases coordination and knowledge recombination. Inaugurated in 2017, Apple Park now offers ample opportunities for employees to run into each other: at the 100,000-square-foot gym, parks, one of seven cafes, or on route to the bathroom. Hosting many Apple employees in one facility enables relationship building across teams, idea sharing with co-workers of different specialties, and opportunities to collaborate. The division of the building into modular sections, known as pods, facilitates teamwork and social activities. Everyone placed into these pods — from the CEO to summer interns — builds connections and can discover mentorship opportunities.

Hybrid with flexible space: For the execution-oriented large enterprise.

Your top resource is still your people, but they need a different kind of “space” to execute efficiently. You need to give them the flexibility to be where they are most productive. As Leslie Perlow, a renowned Organization Behavior scholar at Harvard Business School points out in her research on “time famine,” constant interruptions at work can have dire consequences for productivity, creating a feeling (and a reality) of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. This is why it’s necessary to structure independent work time for your employees to execute. The best place to do this is not always the office; it may be in the place each employee determines is the best environment for themselves, which could be at home, a coffee shop, or even on a tropical island. So, giving employees the space to be remote at least some of the time may be beneficial. As a couple of extra pluses, you can save on real estate costs and your employees can save on commuting time, which research shows can enhance their productivity.

But we also believe full remote work has serious problems. For one, it cannot facilitate the level of coordination — team meetings to divide up projects, manager check-ins to motivate and track individual progress, etc. — necessary to align their employees towards a corporate goal today. Though virtual meetings can host occasional planned interactions, there is still considerable friction in interactions and just plain physical exhaustion. In fact, during the pandemic, we wrote a case study about Zoom Video Communications, the breakout brand in video conferencing. We can assure you that Zoom is well aware of Zoom fatigue, which the technology available today cannot yet eliminate.

If you want to allow your employees to independently execute remotely, but still need coordination, how do you bridge these needs? The key is to take a new view on how you think about the time your employees spend together in-person. Instead of packing their time with meetings in a conference room, your goal is to drive coordination through culture building.

By giving your people the time and space to socialize in person, your organization builds shared language, norms, values, and ultimately culture. This has long-term value and aids in ensuring consistency in the decentralized decisions your employees make when they are working remotely and independently. It also minimizes the need for constant coordination with coworkers and managers.

Large enterprises can allow for both flexible execution and cultural coordination by being hybrid with flexible space. One organization that has been at the forefront of this model is Github, a leading provider of software development tools. Even before the pandemic, GitHub did not require its employees to come to the office: employees were encouraged to work wherever they wanted in the world, and kept formal meetings to a minimum. Despite this unconventional model, GitHub has always maintained an office in San Francisco, where most of its leadership team resides. The headquarters acts as a gathering space for teams across the company to host in-person team summits, for members of the GitHub community to host events or workshops, and for “GitHubbers” to have cultural hub to engage with. Outside of San Francisco, employees can gather in a network of smaller formal offices and co-working spaces all over the world.

Coworking environment: For the creativity-oriented small startup.

The main challenge of being a small business is a more limited pool of knowledge, carried within the minds of employees, to source from within your organization; these pieces of knowledge, when reshuffled and recombined, are required for innovation. But innovation can come from more than your own employees interacting with each other. Creativity-oriented startups need to make sure their workplace facilitates knowledge spillovers from and to peer firms by looking outside their own four walls. But it doesn’t need to be that far outside: perhaps just down the hall or next door (ideally no further than 20 meters).

By locating your office close by other companies (and even competitors) — in the same city, neighborhood, building, floor, or even in the same room — you can benefit from knowledge spillovers. Further, we find that creativity arises from being near other organizations that are very different, not just in technical skills and target markets, but also in demographic background. This allows people from different companies to socialize face-to-face and build trust, comfortably sharing mutually beneficial knowledge over time so both organizations can thrive.

Again, managers need the right office architecture to promote the social interaction where individuals can exchange information. Although our research suggests that very short distances are especially potent, creating common spaces such as kitchenettes can functionally make people closer, even if they sit in more distant places. Remember: your employees still need private space to execute efficiently, so a completely open office design may be counterproductive.

As your business grows, you will also need to adapt. We suggest designing your workplace with fully reconfigurable scope: you need to be able to move your employees around so that the right people are together to coordinate on an innovation you may not have imagined when you picked your workplace. A reshuffling of office assignments may be useful to stimulate exchange among individuals that would otherwise be less likely to interact. Physical location can serve as a tool to enable unplanned information exchange.

One solution is to locate your business in a coworking environment, popularized by companies like WeWork and Social Impact Hub. We work closely with the Atlanta Tech Village, a coworking space where several startups — which have now grown into notable unicorns — exploited the advantages of coworking. Sales engagement platform SalesLoft moved to the Atlanta Tech Village as one of its first members. Shortly after, marketing platform Terminus also started renting space at the coworking hub. Being physically close to other nascent businesses dealing with similar problems helped Terminus, SalesLoft, and the many others in the space learn from each other; for example, about useful web technologies to support their online operations. It also led to the incorporation of technologies produced by neighbors: SalesLoft continues to use Terminus products today.

Full remote: For the execution-oriented small startup.

Some small startups just need to execute: you know what your people need to do, and so do they. In organizations like this, you must make sure you empower your employees to execute with independent efficiency.

At the same time, you know you will need to grow rapidly. Much like the scalability offered by using cloud computing services as opposed to on-premise servers, you want to make sure you have the fully expandable scale to grow your workforce without being limited by four walls of an office.

If it isn’t obvious already, we are not remote work evangelists: our research demonstrates that there are serious downsides. But there is a time and “place” for it, particularly if you’re an execution-oriented small businesses. Consider Toptal, a company that provides a freelancing platform connecting software developers from around the globe with companies for remote work. Both its internal team and its network of contract developers are remote, now spanning over 93 different countries. The company matches developers to one or more companies at the same time where they take on projects with objectives that can be clearly specified and evaluated by the client. Having clear objectives allows works to be completed individually with less back and forth coordination.

Note that there may be limits to the fully remote model. Another organization, online education provider Treehouse, began their journey as a completely remote company. Initially, this was the appropriate model for them. But once they reached around 40 employees, Treehouse managers recognized that with growth, coordination became more difficult. In response, and in order to maintain employee independence as far as possible, they decided to open offices in Orlando and Portland and shift to the hybrid with flexible space model described above. Today, teachers and other roles requiring coordination can collaborate from these offices, while designers and other roles who can execute independently continue to have the option to work remotely.

. . .

The opportunity to reimagine your workplace doesn’t come along often. Today, too many managers are letting this opportunity slip by, letting their organizations revert back to where they were before the pandemic. Even worse, some are floundering in an ambiguous workplace mixing the past and the future while suffering from all the tradeoffs between workplace configurations. It is time to design your organization for the future based on your size and goals for growth.


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Running a Business

Six Office Remodels That Will Help Improve Work Culture



The physical space of an office plays a significant role in creating a positive or negative work culture. When your team members love coming to the office, it shows in their attitudes and overall job satisfaction. Thankfully, by researching a few key remodels, like floor plans, furniture, and LVT flooring reviews, you can create an inviting and inspiring space for your staff.

1. Open Floor Plans

One of the most popular remodeling trends is to ditch the traditional cubicle layout in favor of an open floor plan.

An open floor plan typically means no physical barriers between employees. This can help to encourage communication and collaboration, as employees can easily talk to one another. It can also make the office feel more relaxed and informal, which many prefer.

The downside to an open floor plan is that it can sometimes be too noisy and chaotic. If you opt for this type of remodel, make sure you have ample sound-dampening materials to help keep the noise level down.

2. Private Offices

If you prefer more privacy in your office space, then private offices might be the way to go.

Private offices are small, enclosed spaces that can be used for individual work or meetings with clients or employees. They offer more privacy than an open floor plan but allow for more collaboration since people can easily meet in a small space.

They can sometimes feel too isolating, so make sure you have plenty of other areas in your office where employees can socialize and collaborate.

3. Breakout Areas

Breakout areas are another popular office remodeling trend. These are usually informal and comfortable areas where employees can take a break from work, relax, and socialize. They can include couches, TVs, games, and other fun activities. They’re a great way to support staff, especially if you work in a stressful industry.

Breakout areas can also be used for collaboration, so if you have the space, you may want to consider creating a few different ones. For example, you could have a quiet area for individual work and a more lively area for group projects.


4. Ergonomic Furniture

Ergonomic furniture is designed to be comfortable and supportive. It can help to reduce strain on the body and improve posture. This type of furniture is becoming increasingly popular in offices, as it can help to improve employee health and productivity.

If you’re considering an ergonomic office remodel, talk to a professional about the best way to implement it. You’ll want to ensure that all your employees have access to comfortable and supportive furniture.

5. Updated Flooring

Updating your office’s flooring is another excellent way to improve its look and feel. Replacing your current flooring can make a big difference if your existing flooring is dated or damaged.

There are many different types of flooring to choose from, so you’ll want to consider your options carefully by researching multiple carpeting and LVT flooring reviews. You should also consider how easy the flooring will be to clean and maintain.

6. Better Lighting

Poor lighting can cause various problems, including eye strain, headaches, and fatigue. If your office has fluorescent lighting, you may want to consider replacing it.

LED lighting is a great choice for office spaces because it’s natural and inviting. It also provides better light distribution, so everyone in the office can see clearly. LED lighting is also energy-efficient, so it can help save you money in the long run.

Colleagues in an office space
photo credit Kindel Media Pexels

Final Thoughts

These are just a few of the many office remodeling trends that you may want to consider. Updating your office can create a more enjoyable and productive workplace for your employees.

Research what would work best for your business, and check out all of the furniture, lighting, and LVT flooring reviews you can find before making any final decisions. Your employees will be happy you made the investment and will enjoy spending time in the office.

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Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work



For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.

In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.

That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.

During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.

People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.

Create mutual learning opportunities.

After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”

Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:

We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.

Tap into the power of nostalgia.

Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.

Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.

Eat or cook together.

In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.

Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.

Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.

Plug into your local community.

Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”

Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”

On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.

In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.

Create virtual shared experiences.

Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:

  • If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
  • What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?

He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.

EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”

In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.” 

Make rest and renewal a team effort.

Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.

Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.

To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.

Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.

By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”

. . .

Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?


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How to Handle Office Gossip … When It’s About You



Gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes. When it’s used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts, it can incite workplace drama. So what should you do if you find out a colleague has been gossiping about you? First, let the messenger of the gossip know you’ll be discussing it with the gossiping colleague. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace. Second, when you confront the person gossiping, focus first on the content of their gossip, rather than their method. If there’s merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback, and you also demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns. Finally, ask them for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself.

Imagine a colleague of yours, “Beth,” approaches you one day and tells you that “Gareth,” a relatively new member of your team, made disparaging comments about you to her — referring to you as a “lightweight who wouldn’t be in the job if not for getting hired before the company could attract those with credentials.”

Beth reports this in hushed tones, then adds, “He can’t know where you heard it, okay?” What should you do next?

As I’ve written about before, gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes:

  1. It can be a source of information for those who mistrust formal channels.
  2. It can serve as an emotional release for anger or frustration.
  3. It can be used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts

It’s this latter form that incites a lot of workplace drama. This kind of gossip is communication minus responsibility. It is a collusive counterfeit to problem solving. In the example above, someone is telling you that you’ve been gossiped about — and they’re using gossip as the vehicle to do so. They’re passing along information on condition of anonymity.

The most crucial moment in addressing gossip like this is not after you hear it, but when you hear it. In an ideal world, Beth would have informed Gareth in the moment that she would need to share the information with you, unless he was willing to do so himself. But given that didn’t happen, you as the subject must decide whether you will continue the gossip or invite responsible communication.

When you tacitly or explicitly agree to engage in gossip so you can get access to gossip about you, you become part of the problem. You also prevent yourself from taking the only kind of action that could lead to resolution: a candid and respectful dialogue that produces mutual understanding. The way you handle this moment — the instant you’re issued an invitation to participate in gossip — becomes crucial. Here are three things to do when someone else is gossiping about you.

Don’t listen if you can’t act.

I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to set a boundary with those who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in the direction of gossip, I politely stop the person and let them know that I’ll likely act on the information I’m given. This helps them understand that speaking implies responsibility and gives them an “out” to decide to keep the information to themselves.

In the situation above, Beth has already shared critical information. At this point, you could say, “Thanks for letting me know Gareth has concerns about me. I’ll be discussing that with him. I don’t feel a need to share your name, but he might guess you shared it.” If that makes her nervous, you should still hold your boundary. You might say, for example, “I’m going to address this with Gareth one way or another. If you want a day or so to let him know you shared it with me, you’re welcome to take that time.” If she chooses not to do so, you’re free to move forward.

Of course, the risk in this approach is that people will think twice before sharing gossip with you. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace.

Address the right issue first.

Next is the conversation with Gareth. A gossip episode like this involves two conversations: one about process and one about content.

Most people’s first instinct is to address the process problem — i.e., the fact that Gareth is talking negatively behind your back. You assume the content of the gossip in meritless and move to immediately confront what bothers you most: the inappropriate way he’s peddling his “fabrications.” A better way to proceed is to focus first on the content issue — Gareth’s apparent concerns about your competence — and not the “talking behind my back” issue.

Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation (even implicitly) as “Shame on you for talking behind my back,” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short, I need that feedback.” This approach helps in a number of ways. First, if there is merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback. Second, you transcend tit-for-tat reactions in a way that might prevent this from escalating into future personal conflict. And third, you demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns.

Don’t be deterred if the person starts by claiming misunderstanding or minimizing their statements. Reiterate your desire for feedback and urge them to be forthcoming about any concerns.

Discuss the process problem.

Only after you’ve explored the other person’s concerns can you productively hold them accountable for the indirect way their feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold them accountable for their bad behavior.

There is no guarantee that approaching gossip in this way will eliminate it. But it does guarantee that you become part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.


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