When Caroline moved to a new city to take on a job at a company she was thrilled to join, she was surprised when she had a hard time building friendships and positive relationships with her colleagues. A few months down the road, she found out why: Someone from her previous company had falsely told one of her new colleagues that Caroline tries to get others to do her work for her.
Workplace gossip like this can have devastating consequences. We tend to have a strong negativity bias: almost all of us pay more attention to negative information than we do to positive information. Think about the last time you posted something to Facebook, for example, and got a string of enthusiastic comments followed by a single, stinging rebuke – which comment did you focus on?
We react similarly to information about others. Research by Stanford University professor Robb Willer shows that we take negative gossip about others seriously. We view it as useful information that can protect us. The result — if someone spreads false rumors about you — is that it’s hard to shake off that reputation. Not only can this experience damage your professional opportunities, it can be extremely stressful on a personal level.
So what are some steps you can take if this has happened to you? Some people think that being a considerate colleague and friendly collaborator can protect you. While this is true in most cases (research shows that being a respectful and kind colleague leads to wonderful professional results for you and your organization), you are not completely immune — you can still be prey to jealousy or envy regardless.
If you are facing hurtful rumors at work, you’ll need to use skills of emotional intelligence to avoid making the situation any worse – and ideally, to make the situation better.
1) Regulate your negative emotions. There is only so much you can do about the situations you face, but there is a lot you can do about how you respond to it. Many people initially respond with feelings of horror, anger, anxiety or even helplessness when confronted with negative gossip about them. Especially when rumors are false, as in Caroline’s case, you feel trapped in an unfair situation. As a result of these feelings, however, you can lose motivation and succumb to the negative effects of stress or become angry. “Taking a moment to step back from these situations [and] simply label your emotions can be very helpful in managing emotions,” says Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Use the calming strategies that work best for you: breathing, mindfulness, unplugging from work, working out or taking walks. Give yourself time to cool off. Chances are you will come up with a far more constructive solution to the problem once the emotions have died down.
2) Expand your perspective. The idea behind cooling off is to help you regain your sense of proportion. Johann Berlin, CEO of TLEX Institute, observes that “because these kinds of situations seem unfair, you feel powerless and can lose sight of the big picture. You either want to fight or you shut down. In other words, you’re either angry or you’re depressed or ashamed. That’s when you need to step back and ask yourself what does success means to you in that moment? Does it mean winning? Or does it mean regaining that feeling of power and confidence?” We know from research that negative emotions like stress or feeling down are associated with a narrower perspective and a tendency toward self-focus — in other words, your perception is skewed. We all know we’re not at our best when we’re feeling upset. In order to figure out a constructive solution, we need to snap out of a negative mindset.
3) Practice self-compassion – and even forgiveness. “During those difficult moments, you can feel like you’re in a dark place and there’s no way out, but cultivating forgiveness and compassion, soft as these terms may sound, can actually be highly effective,” Berlin recommends. Research supports the idea that when you forgiven someone, the person who benefits most is yourself. Forgiveness can help you move on, improves your well-being, your health, and generally lightens your step.
Being able to cultivate forgiveness and even compassion for the gossip perpetrator, in Caroline’s case, actually helped free her from her negative feelings. As a result, she experienced renewed energy to prove herself – regardless of wagging tongues. She was able to come up with creative new ways of building relationships and demonstrating her work ethic in her new workplace. “Of course, when you’re really upset, it’s hard to generate positive feelings. That’s where exercises like yoga, breathing and meditation, that calm you down, can help you get your bearings so you’re ready for a fresh start,” Berlin points out.
4) De-identify from the situation. Recognize that the situation is not necessarily a reflection of you. Michael Kraus, Assistant Professor at Yale University School of Management, points out the importance of de-identifying from the situation: “The most important thing to realize for people dealing with these kinds of problem behaviors is that they aren’t about you–they are actually the behavior of someone who is nervous and anxious about their position within an organization. People lash out, gossip, and snipe at others to protect their fragile selves. They tear you down to make themselves look slightly better by comparison.”
That said, you do need to be honest with yourself. As Willer points out, “sometimes people are the deserving victims of negative gossip, but don’t perceive it that way.” It’s important to probe into whether there is truth in what is being said.
5) Consider how to respond. If you know who is behind the rumors, Willer suggests that, however challenging or awkward it may feel to do so, “you can offer your perspective to the ‘lead gossip.’ If you honestly explain your perspective on the gossip, and the personal pain that has been caused to you by the gossip, you may be able to change that persons’ perspective.” Here again, it is important to de-identify from the situation and regulate your emotions. As Willer points out, “Critical here is to approach the person in a sympathetic, nonconfrontational way, so that you can win their sympathies.” You want to speak to them from a place that is cool and collected.
Caroline reached out to colleagues at her former workplace in order to understand where this gossip could have come from, but could not identify the source. In cases like these, Willer suggests that you “enlist friends or trusted acquaintances who give your side of the story to very frankly and reasonably counteract the gossip.”
6) Give it time. Remember that time is on your side. Kraus advises that, “as the victim you should play the long game. You have a reputation that is built on a large body of work across many co-workers. One inconsistent bit of sabotage could be harmful in the short-term, but the long term is likely to bear out a different picture of your work.” Willer also suggests performing and acting with high integrity and letting your actions speak for you.
7) Focus on what’s going right. We know that the mind clings to the negative — but research also shows us that 3 times more positive things happen to us than negative things every day. At any given time, a lot of things are going right in our lives. Either in our career or in our personal lives. It could be that you enjoy what you do at work, are grateful for the paycheck, or appreciate your organization’s values or benefits. It could be the joy you derive from your family, hobbies, sports, or community service. When we savor our experiences, we derive more pleasure and satisfaction from them. Spending time enjoying and feeling grateful for what is going right in your life will help you weather the rest. Caroline spent hours every week devoted to a community service activity from which she derived the joy and strength with which to face her other challenges.
8) Remember that you are not alone. The most challenging aspect of going through a difficult experience is the sense of being alone in it. Kraus reminds is that “this behavior is likely chronic across the organization, and so you’re not alone in dealing with it–other people are experiencing something similar to you, and so you have potential alliances with colleagues that can be built around this behavior.” Caroline later found out that her new organization actually had a serious cultural climate issue. A climate survey showed that most employees were highly disgruntled with the leadership and were generally unhappy. The politics she had found herself in were a reflection of a much larger organizational issue.
It’s really hard to be the subject of a negative office rumor, particularly one that has no basis in reality. You can’t always control what other people say about you – but you can control how you respond.
By Emma Seppala