Eliminating Gossip and Negativity in the Workplace

Does one bad apple really spoil the barrel? Scientifically, yes. The rotten apple gives off ethylene, speeding the ripening of all the other apples in the barrel.

In the office setting, be aware the negative influence of the one – the bad apple – in a group could prove to be the undoing of the entire group that would otherwise, without the negative influence, remain content. Negativity in the workplace can decrease morale and productivity, and increase stress and turnover.

This topic was explored by Natalie Forsyth Walters at a recent Kootenai County Partners in Business meeting. Gossip, she contends, builds distrust. In its most destructive form it could be characterized as malicious harassment or character assassination.

There are people who see the world in a negative light and persist in spreading negativity. The good news is that people can change when you and the culture change. Here are some tips and tools from Walters to make that happen.

Tips for Managers – Where to Start
  1. Address the people who are being negative on a one-to-one basis. Be specific about your expectations. Say something like, “I don’t require you to like me or your coworkers, but I do require you to treat me and your coworkers with consideration and respect. And, you will get the same in return.” If they lapse, a written warning with consequences is appropriate.
  2. Meet with the team and encourage “positive gossip.” Positive gossip is telling true stories about people doing great things. Working in the community, volunteering for organizations, perfecting a hobby, redecorating their home are all examples of positive gossip.
  3. Model the behavior that you want from others. When you are in the break room, are you speaking about facts and not opinions? Walters quoted a Rotary plaque, “Is it the truth, is it fair, does it promote goodwill, and is it beneficial?” In other words, think before you speak.

It is hard to change bad habits. It takes 21 days of doing the same thing to establish a habit. Eliminating negativity is not easy. You will need some tools.

Tools for Managers – Keep it Going
  1. Meet with your staff. Discuss ways to reduce and finally eliminate negativity. Some of the best ideas will come from them.
  2. Place signs in high traffic areas. “I give you permission to STOP me if I am being negative or gossiping.” “Only kind words spoken here.” “Would I say this if the person was here?”
  3. Challenge everyone to give three compliments to coworkers per day.
  4. Let the team have control over their individual spaces. Family pictures, paintings, collectibles, and other personal items give a warmth to a work station.
  5. Organize lunch potlucks, holiday treats and other celebrations.
  6. Give a handwritten thank you card when a job is well done. Use stickers to say “Good job” or other positive accolades.
  7. Check in weekly or monthly with your team to see how the change is going.

Once positive feelings start changing your workplace, you want to keep the momentum going. So check your attitude on a daily basis. It also is good to take note of how you are feeling during the day. We all have busy lives and outside stresses can affect work. Do you feel hungry? Then, eat protein. Do you feel angry? Then, breathe deep and try to see life in perspective. Do you feel lonely? Take a few minutes to chat with a coworker during a break. Do you feel tired? Perhaps a 15-minute nap in your car during lunch will perk you up.

Another great tool to maintain a positive attitude is a “Gratitude Journal.” They make great gifts. Write down five things a day that you are grateful for.

And the most important advice: smile. Smile even if you don’t want to. Smile for no reason at all. It’s contagious.

— Vicki Kunz, workforce consultant
Idaho Department of Labor Kootenai County office