I woke up last night from a nightmare where I was being interviewed by a panel of past female co-workers. In the dream most of the women were professional and fair but one, whom I really respected and admired, was whispering about me to a willing listener, just as she had done when we worked together.
“Am I good enough?” lingered in my head all morning like it did when I worked with these women. This dream reminded me of how office gossip and unsupportive actions from female co-workers, big and small, have a lingering effect.
Men gossip just as much as women, but when there is an expectation that women will support each other in the corporate climb, faced with similar challenges, the impact can be a little more painful. So my stories here are about women, but my suggested ways to deal with the gossip apply to both men and women.
The office gossip I experienced in the dream was paltry compared to Rita’s reality. The first and only time Rita missed a shift due to a sick, nursing baby, one of her colleagues, another doctor and mother, said, “Since you can’t be a mom and come into work, why don’t you just quit and stay home?”
Donna’s boss left bad memories and stunted careers in her wake. Her boss rose to a high level in a male-dominated culture. However, instead of mentoring and sponsoring Donna and other women in the office and industry, she took the worst male traits to the extreme. Compared with her male colleagues, Donna’s boss was significantly more dismissive and belittling towards all of the women she interacted with at work.
When I was the keynote speaker for a statewide women’s professional group, the event organizer confessed to me that its members were unsupportive and occasionally destructive towards each other on “Wall Street.” I would have never known by the chatty, smiling faces I saw looking into the crowd of members gathered in order to advance women in their industry.
When I earned my first senior level leadership position, my job-critical peers were women, and for the first time in my career I found myself shrinking to avoid disapproval. Instead of growing with their support and encouragement, I retracted in the shame of not being “good enough.” My career satisfaction plummeted, my career trajectory slowed, and the glow of pride in my work and self-confidence diminished. Just to be clear, the work was no more challenging than anything I had faced previously, but this was the first time I felt a lingering disapproval and rejection from co-workers.
Like a turtle drawing its head into its shell, I reacted the way researchers have found many professional women do in the face of disapproval: We withdraw and hide. Men, however, are more likely to reach out and engage people around them, taking part in activities that solicit approval rather than shelter.
I think you and I both know which natural reaction is better for a career and self-esteem.
The next time you find yourself the target of office gossip, consider the following 6 tips:
- If you find yourself figuratively pulling your head into the tortoise shell, recognize this as a natural response. Then, push through those desires to hide and get out there to confidently network with your allies.
- When someone dishes up a catty comment via office gossip, do not serve them back. Hold a tireless commitment to stand the higher ground. Model this behavior for your co-workers and friends. Any time you want to gossip, withhold support, or say something nasty, remember you have the ability to make the world a better place. You have the ability to remove a bad memory before it is made.
- Venting is an important way to let off steam. The key here, however, is to vent with someone outside of work. If you relay the story to a co-worker, you are now part of a vicious office gossip circle.
- We are humans, not robots, so you may ride a roller coaster of emotions after an “incident.” To ease the pain, actively work to focus on what is going well in your day and what you are grateful for so all of your emotional energy is not devoted to the event.
- Make a clear decision to “let it go” or directly address the situation. Being stuck in limbo, vacillating between the two, will take more energy than the situation and person are worth.
- If you choose to address the situation but it does not require immediate attention, sleep on it so you can increase your chances of approaching the conversation with patience and humor rather than hurt and anger.
Make a conscious choice to bring people up while building your career.
While some of us have more negative habits than others, we all have bad days, say things we wish we hadn’t, and are hurtful even if unintended. Keep this in mind before judging and paying forward bad behavior.
I would love to hear from you! How you have successfully dealt with office gossip?