I recently interviewed a prospective Human Resources Manager candidate and asked what one of her current challenges was. She gave an answer that included an example of two direct reports who once were the best of friends, but are now archenemies and have brought their issues with them to the workplace. In the industry that she is in, she explained that this is common behavior and that it often lands her in the position of being a mediator.
In thinking about her work environment, I started to think about my own work experience and the times that I have seen very similar situations, even in the most professional organizations. Additionally, being “catty” is often viewed as a female trait, but I think that we can all agree that it is a trait that can affect everyone. And while we’d all like to think we would rise above any offense that is sent our way, directly or indirectly, being human often gets in the way. Even in zero tolerance environments, there is no guarantee that the “mean girl/guy” syndrome won’t creep into your organization. As a manager, there are surefire ways to downplay workplace drama and foster productivity.
The Best Practices to Combat a Catty Work Environment
Build a Team of Inclusion Right from the Start
Everyone remembers their first day at a new school or in a new class and the butterflies that their stomach got when it was time to find a place to sit. In certain situations, you may have been given a classroom or lunchroom buddy that made that feeling go away, or at the very least subside when you were in that class or the lunch room. Now while I am certainly not suggesting that we assign “lunch buddies” (that could be weird), I am suggesting that from the moment the offer is accepted, you, the manager and your colleagues, reach out to the new addition to welcome them to the organization and the team. Taking it a step further, share internal content such as YouTube videos of a typical day in the office and/or candid snapshots that show the team outside of the office and their business attire. Make it clear from the start that there is no “I” or “U” in team and that your team shines and dims together.
Recent surveys show that employee engagement is at an all-time low. Research shows that one way to help improve employee engagement is to foster friendships in the workplace because employees are typically happier in their jobs when they have friendships with their co-workers. Friends at work often form a strong social support network for each other, both personally and professionally. Whether rooting for each other on promotions, consoling each other about mistakes, giving advice, or providing support for personal situations, friendship at work can boost employee morale. Often times though, creating and fostering friendship at work heavily relies on the leaders of organizations. Very successful companies like Google, Dropbox, and Southwest have built reputations for fostering friendship in the workplace on the premise that companies can and should create and value friendship opportunities as a competitive advantage for recruiting top employees, retaining employees, and improving engagement, creativity, and productivity.
Don’t Get Sucked into the Drama
A fight, an argument, a disagreement, or whatever we’re calling it these days takes at least two people to be successful. But typically when there is no reaction to an action; even a hurtful one, the motivation to continue disappears. And with no pay-off and no audience, the offending person doesn’t gain anything by continuing the catty behavior. So while your internal voice may be telling you to “let him or her have it”, in a professional setting it is never a good idea to provoke or encourage more bad behavior with your own brand of bad behavior, especially as a leader. Instead, stand firm in your conviction with controlled behavior and emotion and suggest a neutral third-party for the offending person to speak with in a private setting and without an audience.
Just Say NO to Gossip
Ever been on the receiving end of “I have something to tell you about ___, but you can’t tell him/her that I told you?” Or what about something as high school as “Can you believe what he/she is wearing?” Gossip, as defined by the Oxford Dictionaries is “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” The old saying “A tale as old as time” implies that gossip has been around longer than any of us humans. Gossip has ended many relationships because despite what we learned as kids about sticks and stones breaking bones but words not hurting, gossip and rumors do actually hurt. Gossip in the workplace is especially hurtful because it is often not only a personal attack on someone’s character, but it is also an attack on their professional abilities.
Forbes, in my opinion, has one of the most creative cures for this age old ailment. Taking a cue from the sitcom New Girl, they implemented a “douchebag jar” (not a required name of course) and the premise behind the jar is that anytime someone makes a comment that is excessively sarcastic, rude, or hurtful, another person is allowed to call “Jar!” —forcing the offender to deposit money. Once the jar is full, they take the money out for a team building event (AKA “happy hour “) and according to Kelsey Meyer, Forbes Womens Media Contributing Editor, the jar allows them not take themselves too seriously.
Eleanor Roosevelt said it best, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” As a leader, encourage your team to always be of a great mindset while doing your part to provide them with a friendly environment and the tools to combat a catty work environment. Stop the behavior before it leads to something worse like workplace bullying.