Let’s face it. You do it. Your team does it. It might be one of your biggest pet peeves about work, but there’s no denying its efficacy as a communication method.
Gossip. It exists in some form or another in nearly every work environment (now almost entirely virtual as we work from home).
Quite often, this is contrary to our best efforts to shut down gossip wherever it exists. People gossip, and no rule, regulation, or requirement will stop folks from engaging in one of the most primitive forms of communication.
But there’s always that little bit of uncertainty. When is it appropriate to gossip, if ever? And how can you embrace gossip as a force for positive change?
By gossiping ethically and using it as a method for positive change.
Why do we gossip?
Gossiping is a simple yet highly impactful form of communication. As a communication mechanism with roots far back in human evolution, we use it for social bonding and interpret the world around us (particularly, the risks).
It’s an informal type of communication where there are often only two or three people involved at a time. The messaging and language tend not to be very complicated. Yet, the outsized impact of what we hear about someone else’s behavior can, to a great extent, influence how we feel about them and view our own behavior.
In its most basic definition, gossiping is to talk about someone who isn’t present, and according to some psychologists and behavioral scientists, it is a critical social skill. Gossip generally focuses on two key factors: others’ specific behavior and our moral judgment about how these behaviors conform to social norms.
Some of the best leaders I’ve ever worked for or with, as defined by the results they achieved both personally and professionally, were highly adept at gossiping. It was a social skill at which they excelled.
However, their long-term success depended on the type of gossip they engaged in: positive or negative.
Where does it go wrong?
Gossip can either be negative or positive, although we tend to default to view gossiping as a negative behavior, where we talk about others’ negative behavior. The truth is, this is often the most common form of gossip. Spreading rumors about people, sharing misinformation, and getting the dirt on someone can all fall into this camp.
The narcissistic leaders I’ve observed practicing this type of gossip often fall victim to their own scorched earth practice of spreading rumors and adding to workplace hostility.
While negative gossip might be more exciting and entertaining, it has few potential benefits (maybe it helps identify those who are more or less trustworthy). The drawbacks are often considerable: it distorts information, it reduces cooperation, and it can have a significant impact on the mental health of all involved.
But some leaders actively engage in gossip around the office (even virtually) with few of the negative after-effects. What do they do differently? They engage in positive, pro-social gossip.
Hearing positive stories and sharing information about the skills and abilities of others can strengthen an organization. Suppose Betty in sales tells Omar in operations that Ellen in accounting recently helped her set up a Slack workspace for Betty’s sales colleagues. In that case, Omar will now associate Ellen as an expert in Slack and may seek her guidance when using this tool.
Gossiping about a situation that’s bothering you (and not necessarily about the person involved) to a coworker can relieve anxiety by getting something off your chest.
In situations where we hear negative gossip, it often provides an opportunity to self-reflect on our own behavior and consider how we can improve (both as a gossiper and/or contributor to anti-social behavior).
The upside of gossip
When managed appropriately, gossiping can lead to positive outcomes. Here are eight tips to help you use gossiping as a helpful method of communication:
Gossip need not be all bad. Quite the opposite! By appropriately managing positive, pro-social gossip, you can leverage an informal communication network to share ideas and improve collaboration.
DiGiulio, Sarah. “Psychologists Say Gossiping Is a Social Skill. Here's How to Know If You're Doing It Right.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, September 23, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/psychologists-say-gossiping-social-skill-here-s-how-know-if-ncna1056941.
“5 Benefits of Gossip (Even Negative Gossip).” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, June 22, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/one-true-thing/201506/5-benefits-gossip-even-negative-gossip.
Samantha Zabell Updated October 24, and Samantha Zabell. “Benefits Of Office Gossip.” Real Simple. Accessed February 10, 2021. https://www.realsimple.com/work-life/life-strategies/job-career/office-gossip-study.
Dores Cruz, Terence D., Bianca Beersma, Maria T. M. Dijkstra, and Myriam N. Bechtoldt. “The Bright and Dark Side of Gossip for Cooperation in Groups.” Frontiers. Frontiers, May 27, 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01374/full.
LUKE SHEPPARD is the author of the new book Driving Great Results: Master The Tools You Need to Run A Great Business, which provides entrepreneurs and managers with nineteen practical and proven tools to build, launch, and manage a successful business. He is the principal of Sheppard & Company, a firm he founded on the premise of helping others to apply the proven business principles he's honed over his 20-year career in the heavy equipment industry. For more information, visit drivinggreatresults.com.
By nearly any measure, Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 — with the stated aim to be the first to traverse Antarctica — was a failure of monumental proportions, with one exception: his entire crew survived the nearly two-year ordeal.
It’s a gripping and inspiring tale.
An accomplished explorer with a crew of 27 men set sail for Antarctica from South Georgia Island, the last port of call before Antarctica, on December 5th, 1914. Within a week they entered heavy pack ice in the Weddell Sea and six weeks later their ship, the Endurance, became fully encased in ice like "an almond in chocolate" just off the coast of Antarctica.
For the next ten months, they drifted north with the pack ice until their bruised and battered ship finally sank on November 21st, 1915. Within nine months after the sinking, Shackleton and his crew made it to the small outpost of Elephant Island (shown in the main article image), dispatched a skeleton crew (that he commanded) in a rowboat on the 800-mile journey across the open ocean back to South Georgia Island, and then rescued the remaining crew members from Elephant Island. All returned safely to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile.
The most remarkable part of the story?
Not a single member of the crew perished during the expedition. This is truly incredible. 28 men, in one of the most inhospitable parts of the globe, for 22 months in the early 1900s. Keep in mind, this was when satellite phones and GPS and survival suits were half a century away.
How did Shackleton successfully lead his men through impossible odds and near-certain death? By making decisions and defining priorities based on his steadfast values of optimism and the health and safety of his crew.
Beliefs become values
After leaving school early at the impressionable age of 16 for a life of adventure, Shackleton spent the next ten years at sea with all different manner of people. It was likely during this time that his belief in the importance of the well-being of a ship's crew as a direct determinant of the success of any expedition blossomed. His approachable, supportive, and servant leadership behaviors toward his crew on expeditions prior to the Trans-Antarctic certainly indicate that he placed a very high value on the health and well-being of his men.
Shackleton was also an incredibly optimistic person. On more than one occasion, he won his next lot in life not because of skills, education, or provenance, but because of his infectious optimism.
Impenetrable ice leads to an abrupt change in goals
Upon departing England in August 1914, Shackleton's goal for the expedition was cemented in his mind and the minds of millions of his compatriots: he and his team would be the first people to walk the nearly 3,000 km across the Antarctic continent, from the Weddell to the Ross Sea. Ten months later, when he realized the predicament of the situation they were in as the ship's timbers buckled due to the immense pressure of the surrounding ice, his goals changed abruptly.
There would be no expedition. No continental excursion. And no Union Jack planted at the South Pole. His goal now was even simpler: "ship and stores have gone — now we'll go home."
Decision and priority overload
The sheer number of decisions and the balancing priorities Shackleton faced daily for the duration of the journey must have staggering. But the value he placed on the health and well-being of his crew led to some pretty remarkable decisions.
He prioritized morale by keeping his confidence and courage high and immediately befriending dissenters. He instructed some of the crew to forgo specimen collection and scientific endeavors and others to polish their banjo playing skills to entertain the crew. He made socializing after dinner, poetry reading, and exercise a priority for himself and every one of the crew. And, he decided when the crew should make a break for Elephant Island at a time when he thought it most likely that they would all survive (which they did).
Most, if not all, of Shackleton's decisions, irrespective of whether or not they were objective and based on facts and data or subjective and based on his intuition, were guided by one value that he placed above all others. His laser focus, beliefs, and actions as a result of what was most important to him could make the case that the Trans-Antarctic Expedition wasn’t a monumental failure but in fact, a resounding success and testament to values-based decision making.
So what does this mean for how you run your business and lead your team? Your values guide you when no one is looking. They guide you when you’re in survival mode. They're what help you make decisions and set priorities when you're too exhausted and overwhelmed to even think about your goals.
This week is the end of the first month of 2021. Right about now, you’re probably beginning to realize just how much work is in front of you if you want to accomplish all of your goals by year-end. To make high-quality and consistent decisions and prioritize the right actions in pursuit of your goal, your value(s) must be clear.
What values will you rely on when survival mode kicks in (which it will)? How will you help your team to recognize and leverage their values when times get tough?
South by Ernest Shackleton
he next few weeks are arguably the most important period of time in the life of an entrepreneur or manager. It's goal-setting season! In the next two weeks leading up to the New Year, and likely for a few weeks heading into 2021, you'll spend tens of hours defining your 2021 goals with your team. Invest this time wisely and set yourself up for success in 2021 by setting aligned SMART goals.
If you're anything like millions of other leaders around the world, the format you'll use SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-based). Fundamentally, this is a great approach.
Here are three questions you ask yourself as you define your goals:
There are many naysayers and countless articles explaining why SMART goals don't work, but I'm here to tell you that they're wrong. There's a reason why the SMART goal format has been the go-to for results-oriented leaders for the past 40 years. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
As tempting as it is to be a little contrarian toward SMART goals, when I look back on my career in corporate America and the results I delivered, I achieved what I did in large part because of SMART goals. Every time, and I do mean every time, that I truly invested in defining high-quality goals with my team, where expectations were clear and progress toward these goals was measured and evaluated at least every few weeks, the target results were achieved. In the cases where goals were SMART and aligned, the results were off the charts.
If you're aiming for great and not just good enough, and value an engaged team to drive results, read on.
With just one small adjustment, you can make SMART goals much more meaningful, likely (and easier) to be achieved, and emotionally engaging. By aligning goals, the potential exists to drive a far better result than would otherwise be achieved by just conforming to the SMART goal format.
The problem with SMART goals
The general structure of SMART goals is excellent. First devised by George Doran in the early 1980's in response to the question, "how do you write meaningful objectives", he defined SMART criteria as follows:
Specific - what will be accomplished?
Measurable - how will the goal be measured and what are the criteria for success?
Assignable - who owns the goal and will be held accountable for the result?
Realistic - what extra resources are needed to accomplish the goal? There should be some stretch in the goal, but it shouldn't be a moonshot.
Timely - what is the time period for the goal? What are the milestone dates and when will progress be assessed?
Thus far in my life, I've spent hundreds of hours defining SMART goals for me and my team, and personal goals for me and my family, and the simple fact is that SMART goals consistently work when targeting a short-term specific goal. What I've observed is that when goals are simple and clearly defined and people are held accountable for their results, (while managers play offence and remove any roadblocks in their way), businesses thrive.
But as good as they are, there a few notable blind spots with SMART goals you should be aware of:
For more information about SMART goal setting (including a template), here's a link to some info that can help.
SMART(er) goals through alignment
SMART goals are great. Aligned SMART goals are even better. When you include the step of confirming alignment to your (or a team member's) personal and professional values, your Wildly Important Goal (WIG), and your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), great results are more likely to follow. These three factors of alignment are detailed in the following sections.
Your values dictate how you live your life and run your business. The outcome of your decisions - and goals - are all a result of how your values guide you. When your goals are more closely aligned to values, good things happen. And while it's possible to have a mismatch, doing so often leads to missed goals, frustration, and burnout.
For example, in 2021 you may have a goal to grow your business by 20%, which means more time and money invested in your business. But your personal values of family harmony and child development are getting in the way. You want to grow your business, but need to make sure your kids get the learning and support they need as we enter into year two of Covid-19. Something's gotta give - either adjust your goals or (less likely to be successful), reassess your personal values.
Alignment of your goals and values engages you and your team with higher levels of emotional buy-in, commitment, and motivation to the challenges ahead.
For help defining your personal and professional values, here's a tool that can help.
Your WIG (copyright Franklin Covey) is your "most important objective that won't be achieved unless it gets special attention" and "failure to achieve this goal will render all other achievements secondary."
As I've used it, a WIG is a very specific, customer focused, SMART goal. This is the one thing, that when done really, really well, can have a profound impact on your business.
When leading the team at a heavy equipment dealership, the WIG that led to great improvements in profitability and market share was customer response time, measured and reviewed daily. Our thinking? If we delivered on this WIG (which we did), results would follow (which they did).
For help defining your WIG, here's a tool that can help.
Your BHAG (copyright Jim Collins) is an "emotional tool"…"a moon shot." This is the mountain you want your business to climb.
This goal completes your mission and even though incorporates a great deal of stretch, is achievable if you stick to your values, WIG, and strategy.
For help defining your BHAG, here's a tool that can help.
How Values, WIG and BHAG fit together
Your values define how you want to run your business.
Your WIG defines what is most important to drive results.
Your BHAG is where you want to go.
All three need to be aligned with your SMART goals to drive short-term results and long-term success.
When checking for alignment, ask these 3 questions
It is more than just possible to achieve an outrageous goal, with an engaged and happy team, when you are all aligned. Get out of the 2020 funk and step up your goal-setting game in 2021 with aligned SMART goals.
PS - here are a few of the tips I jotted down for myself over the years to set better SMART goals: