4 realistic ways to avoid the gossip trap at work

First and foremost, we need to change the narrative around how women navigate conflict, says Joan Kuhl, gender strategist and author of “Dig Your Heels In.”
Joan Kuhl, gender strategist and author of "Dig Your Heels In."
Joan Kuhl, gender strategist and author of "Dig Your Heels In."Travis W Keyes Photography

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By Joan Kuhl

The idea that women dislike one another and have difficulty working together continues to persist. Just look at some of the dramatic book titles over the years like “Catfight: Women & Competition” and “Mean Girls, Meaner Women.” There are plenty of examples in pop culture too, like the very public feud between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, or the Nikki Minaj “Miley, what’s good?” exchange at the VMAs. This definitely fuels the fire.

Over the past five years, I have worked with dozens of women’s and young professional employee resource groups, as well as women’s MBA student organizations to develop strategies for disrupting the bias they encounter at work and school. The most crucial objective is centered on cultivating trust based meaningful relationships with both women and men.

The good news is, I’ve seen firsthand that women are showing up for each other in bigger and more visible ways than ever before, especially in the entrepreneurial space and gig economy.

We learned tactics like amplification and sponsorship then put them to use. We have pulled a seat up to the table where recruiting and succession planning decisions are made to ensure we see her in the pipeline. We’ve watched more women rise to the top without “sacrificing” the decision to have a family, hiding their sexual orientation or accepting less pay when we know we are worth way more.

But as we shine a spotlight on all this awesome femme allying, I want to help us address when there are barriers between us. Because, I do hear stories from women about conflicts are having with another woman, which sends them into a tailspin like no other. They recount how much more it stings than if the conflict were with a man. Tension. Resentment. Guilt. Massive regret.

Why does conflict between women hurt so much and leave deeper scars? How do we actually get over it, through it, avoid it, confront it and survive it for the benefit of ALL of us?

Let’s tackle one area that needs some attention within our control: Gossiping.

She hates me for no reason. What’s her problem?

I can’t deal with her. She annoys the sh*t out of me.

Why isn’t she supporting younger women? Does she even see me?

I can’t believe she said that. She is so two faced.

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She is totally different around men than women.

I can’t ever trust her again. She stabbed me in the back.

She is so fake. You know what people say about her.

Why does gossiping like this happen?

Every legit study points the finger back at the bias within our culture and particularly inside the workplace where women have been held back from achieving the respect, recognition and the time we deserve. This ignites and exacerbates competition between women when there is a belief that only “one woman” can advance or become the “queen bee.” We know this is ridiculous because one is not enough. We must make room for each other.

Gossiping is a behavior we learned early on that we can curb to turnaround our relationships and the negative perceptions about them. Gossiping amongst women is said to have been derived from our early childhood experiences with secret telling. Remember how good it felt when a new friend entrusted us with a secret? We would swoon at this exclusive moment of being “chosen” to withhold that super private information. Inevitably those secrets always burned bridges or hurt someone else that was the protagonist in the secret scenario.

The problem is that secret telling taught some women that this is how we are supposed to connect socially and build friendships. Age and maturity should have taught us that the risk far outweighs the reward. Yet, nearly three quarters of white-collar workers admitted to gossiping in the office. Four in five women dish about workplace issues and coworkers. The telephone game at work has serious consequences where it derails our brand, our reputation and trust in our intentions.

You may need to vent or voice your frustrations which is absolutely OK after a situation that rattles you. The key is to take a moment to reflect on who the right person is to speak to and why. Even if you can justify the statement to a behavior or action, it can damage the organization and hurt individuals. This leads us down the path of becoming a victim being bullied by a villain. We have to actively commit to not gossip haphazardly as an adult rather focus on conflict resolution and learn how to redirect others who engage.

Sometimes we gossip because we aren’t ready to face the person directly. It is society’s perception about how women should or should not behave which has seriously impeded our ability to assert our voice and express ourselves however we feel. The curse of behaving like a good girl at work holds us back from confronting the aggressive guy in a meeting who cuts us off incessantly or the hallway hijacks that throw us off our game for days. The same phenomena occurs with women when we don’t address the issues head on and suppress our feelings. We send them underground just to survive and get through the day to day grind letting the emotions fester.

As the mother of two daughters, I take this subject seriously as I try to figure out how to parent my daughter through her emotions and encourage her to speak up for herself and others. I found a book called “How to Take the GRRRR Out of Anger” which essentially teaches kids to identify their triggers and to tune in using their “anger radar” to manage not suppress your emotions. A line that resonated with me was “This may be hard to believe but some adults you know and talk to every day are still angry about stuff that happened when they were kids. Because they may never have learned how to deal with their anger.” We all deserve to own and respect all of our feelings.

I did find some good news for working women in a recent study that concluded “when employers foster an office environment that supports positive, social relationships between women coworkers, especially in primarily male dominated organizations, they are less likely to experience conflict among women employees.” Bottom line: recruit more women into your company at every level.

In the meantime, here are four steps to work through emotions when navigating challenges without digressing to gossip or suppressing our true feelings.

1. Identify your triggers

We are all sensitive to judgement about the choices we make, and this is one of the core tensions between women at different levels and stages of their career. There are actions, attitudes and personalities that push our buttons but to be an effective inclusive leader you need to be more open. It helps to be clear on our triggers so we can develop strategies to overcome them in the future.

2. Don’t feed into the stereotypes

Don’t feed into stereotypes like women with children are less committed to work or tenured women act like men to advance. We all have biases and need to be mindful of when they undercut our progress.

Understand your privileges when it comes to race and culture. Incivilities and microaggressions against women of different social identities is reported far too often. Reach out to women different than you and build alliances across intersectionality’s to prevent isolation and further discrimination. Our aspirations are much more in sync than stereotypes will ever depict so busting through the myths and taking the time to really invest in relationships is the ultimate mission.

3. Prepare for productive conversations

Analyzing disagreements or tense relationships takes some time to really pinpoint the crucial factors and identify any patterns. Think about your work styles, history of interactions and look for any common ground. Be honest with yourself about your goal and what’s at stake if things remain unresolved. Your mindset, the message and the pursuit toward mutual respect will require reflection and patience with yourself. When you make the effort to be judgement free and work toward mediation, you will inspire your peers to be courageous and intentional about building trusting meaningful relationships.

4. Aim to rebuild trust and really move on

The saying goes that “we can’t control other people; we can only control our reactions.” I can’t predict how the other woman will respond when you approach her to discuss the tension within your relationship, but I can assure you that developing your personal sense of perspective focuses your mind on moving forward productively. This will position you for a healthier outcome.

Focus on spreading the good news about each other and invest in your ability to navigate conflict. Let’s disrupt the negative perceptions and invest in a stronger narrative aligned to women supporting women.

Joan Kuhl is a champion for girls leadership and advancing women in the workforce. She is the author of Dig Your Heels In, Misunderstood Millennial Talent and has led global research on gender and generational dynamics in the workplace for corporations and business schools. Joan is a #SheBelieves Champion for the U.S. Soccer Organization developing a national leadership curriculum and currently serves on the board of Girls Inc of NYC