Harvey Mackay

The Weight of Our Words

There was a young boy who liked to gossip. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he gossiped, he should hammer a nail into the back fence.

The first day, the boy drove 37 nails into the fence. After that, they gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his tongue than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn't gossip at all. He told his father about it, and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he exercised restraint.

The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things about other people, they leave scars just like these."

Think of gossip like the game most of us played as children where everyone sits in a circle and one person starts by whispering something in their neighbor's ear. That person then whispers what they heard in the next person's ear, and so on, until the last person is reached. The last person then tells what he or she heard. It's often fun to see how the initial message changes, drastically and quickly.

"Some people will believe anything if it is whispered to them," said Pierre de Marivaux, a French playwright from the 18th century.

Gossip and rumors have probably been part of the workplace culture since the days of the pyramids. ("Psst! I heard Cleopatra and that Roman dude are an item! Pass it on!") Although a certain amount of personal chitchat goes on in any workplace, gossiping employees can erode trust among co-workers and infect a team with dissension and hostility.

To keep rumors from gaining a foothold in your organization, follow this advice:

Improve general communications. Employees will believe rumors if they don't have access to facts. Even in tough times, give your people as much information as you can so they can rely on solid data, not half-truths. If you can't share news, explain why, so you don't appear to be hiding anything.

Confront rumors directly. If you catch wind of an untrue rumor, go to the source and set him or her straight, explaining the damage that false information can cause. Clear up the confusion with your entire workforce right away. They may think twice about spreading or believing rumors if they know you're ready to step in.

Set the right example. Don't listen to gossip that comes your way. Either correct any misinformation immediately, or explain that you're not interested in rumors. Don't pass along any unsubstantiated stories yourself. Let the gossip stop with you. If people persist in spreading rumors, suggest that they need more work to do.

Research has found that the people who talked trash about someone else unwittingly painted themselves with the same brush. When queried, recipients of gossip (the listeners) consistently attributed any negative traits they heard about a third party to the person delivering the gossip. The finding held even when listeners were told that the statements did not describe the person doing the sniping.

On the bright side: The same is true when the talk is positive. Believe it or not, not all gossip has to be bad. The grapevine can be a valuable source of information that can help you in your career.

Consider that some gossip can be intentional leaks of information you should know, and if you learn who is worth listening to, you can develop a sense of what's ahead for your organization.

Listen thoughtfully and don't feel like you have to add a comment. Adding grist to the mill may come back to haunt you, so hold your tongue and weigh the information you are receiving before you pass judgment.

Think of gossip like soft butter. It's easy to spread and adds a little flavor to just about everything. But trying to "unspread" it is just about impossible. There is always a little residue left behind, a greasy spot that's hard to clean up.

Think about that before you try to butter someone up with a little juicy gossip.

Mackay's Moral: If people would not carry gossip, it would not go so far.

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