When Listening Isn’t a Good Thing

January 29, 2014
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.


I often share my belief that listening is one of the most important skills that a leader should develop. Actively listening to team members at all levels of the organization helps build trust, empathy and consensus.

Sometimes, however, not listening can also send a powerful message.

The Barry-Wehmiller that my father ran was a very traditional one. Each day, my dad opened the mail that came into the company, in an effort to know what was going on in the business.  His secretary, a wonderful lady named Virginia, took it upon herself to share the office gossip with him from time to time. She considered it her duty to keep him informed of all the goings-on in the office.

When my father passed away and I assumed leadership of the organization, I inherited his staff as well as all the traditional ways of running the business.  Along with that came the regular “update” sessions from Virginia.  One of the first changes I made in my new role was to end this practice. I asked Virginia to stop sharing rumors and gossip with me.

As a leader, when we listen to people speculating, belittling or disparaging others, we are encouraging more of this behavior. Those who gossip love the thrill of being the first to let you in on some juicy secret.  Don’t give them the thrill.

Modeling positive communication can help counter gossip. Two ways to do this are:

  • Always look for the goodness in each person. 
    • As author and motivational speaker Marcus Buckingham said: “Shine a light into the corners of your organization and find those individuals toiling away in relative obscurity.” Find the unsung heroes, the quiet leaders and hold them up.  Celebrate their goodness. When we spend time looking for the goodness, we don’t have the time– or the appetite–for gossip.
  • Fill the void.
    • Share information about the business freely. When people lack clarity and understanding of what’s happening and why, they fill that void with speculation and gossip. Good leaders create a constant flow of open, transparent communication to all levels of the organization.
    • Establish formal communication channels: During the economic downturn of 2008, we instituted a regular video update through which I shared how the business was performing.  The video update allowed our 7,000 global teammates to hear the good and not-so-good news directly from me. Furthermore, it allowed each team member to receive the non-verbal communication in my message. Positive feedback to the honest and authentic update was overwhelming. We continue this practice today.
    • Create opportunities for informal face-to-face communication:  Throughout my weekly travels to our operating companies, I frequently meet with small groups of team members in a two-way dialogue.  They ask me questions about the business and I answer candidly.  I ask them what we, as an organization, are doing right and areas where they think we could improve. These sessions not only keep me in touch with people at all levels of the business but also bring out some of the best “positive gossip.”

While Virginia had the best interests of the organization at heart, participating in gossip can cause a great deal of harm to the individuals involved and the organization too. Our commitment to Truly Human Leadership asks each of us to consider how we can touch the lives of those around us on a daily basis. Words that are positive are one of the easiest ways to do that.

How do you discourage gossip in your work environment?

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