Brandt On Leadership -- Psst...Heard The Latest On Office Gossip?

Dec. 21, 2004
It's a dangerous game. But if you play, play by the rules.

Office gossip. We all hate it. And we all despise anybody who engages in it. Except, of course, for ourselves. Ever since human beings first communicated, we have loved to trade news, innuendo and half-truths about our rivals in the food chain. Our clothes become more refined, our work environments more controlled, but our lust for dirt remains as passionate as it did 10,000 years ago. We tell ourselves we're only trying to get ahead, but mainly we go sideways, as in the shaking of our heads when we say: "She said what?" If you're really trying to get ahead, focus on your job. But if you do play the office-gossip game, watch out for these characters: Sylvia Switzerland: Hears all, knows all and tells all. Can recount to you in detail everything bad that anybody has ever said about you -- all for your benefit, of course: I just thought you should know. Claims to be your only friend, then asks what you think about everyone else. Remember this: In the gossip game, what you get is only as good as what you give. Anything you share with Sylvia will be traded for something else and not to your benefit. Vinnie Viper: Mr. Passive Aggressive agrees with you in every meeting, then tells everyone what an idiot you are -- behind your back. His specialty is trying to find people who will repeat his venom to others so that he can poison the organization against you without having his fingerprints appear on the vial. If you can fire Vinnie, do it. If you can't, launch a counteroffensive via the appropriate grapevine. (See Radio Free Ricky, below.) Iona Inoculation: Runs to you every time she hears anything bad about herself or you, fearing that you will believe it about her or think that she said it about you. Nobody really tells her anything, so it's almost always last month's news. Will keep secret anything you tell her, but what's the point? Steve Straight-As-An-Arrow: Also known as Dupe-of-the-Day Dave. Because he can't imagine that anyone who promises to keep a secret won't, often vents to sympathetic-seeming colleagues. (See Sylvia Switzerland, above.) As a result, everyone in the company knows everything about his department -- and anything you tell him. Refuses to think ill of anyone -- even those who deserve it -- which renders him captain of the softball team but hapless in office politics. Buy him a milk in the cafeteria and then steer clear. Radio Free Ricky: A broadcast outlet, pure and simple. Although he usually offers whatever useless tidbit he has in a conspiratorial tone -- while at the same time telling you I am where secrets go to die -- he can hardly wait for the door to shut behind you before he's on the phone, shopping whatever you've just told him. Most useful as a foghorn to make an announcement when you don't really want to make an announcement. Of course, the problem with listening to Ricky -- or Sylvia, Vinnie, Iona or even Steve -- is that you never know if what you've heard is the truth or somebody else blowing into the foghorn. And even if what you hear is true, it may just be a co-worker blowing off steam in a way you were never meant to hear. In John Cheever's short story, The Enormous Radio, a couple finds that with their new radio, properly tuned, they can listen in to secrets in any other apartment in their building. At first they find this exciting, but as they hear more of the misery and misdeeds of others, their disgust with their neighbors slowly turns on themselves, too. They learn too late that the best policy for a gossip radio is turn it off before you hear yourself on its airwaves. But how much fun is that? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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