Talking Trash

Alright, I’ve had enough.  Everybody out of the sandbox.  I’ve been seeing (for the past 20 years) what I’ve come to recognize as the complete opposite of mentoring.  Its useless, it is damaging, it is definitely going on around you, and it is killing your production.  If mentoring is: to serve as a trusted counselor or teacher, particularly in an occupational setting (from – sorry) – Then surely openly complaining about someone is:  to serve only as a hindrance to a persons growth and learning by sharing their perceived deficiencies with everyone but them. (from me)

The practice of talking bad about a co-worker..or your boss..or say – an entire department of people at your company –  while commonly and incorrectly accepted as “venting” – is actually an extremely damaging act to play out on other members of your team.  This is particularly true if (say it isn’t so) the person doing to behind-the-back trash-talking is a supervisor (at any level).  The mistake – and man, it’s a big one –  has more than a few latent effects on the listeners and complainers alike.

The effect on the person you’re talking about is obvious.  When you talk poorly about a anyone’s performance, you are deliberately trying to infect the listener with the same attitude about the person that you have.  Without even knowing it, those who hear your complaints – to some degree – will treat the person with just a little less respect.  If he or she did have a deficiency that you noticed that needed some work, you are one step farther away from helping them fix the problem.  If you are making the HUGE leadership mistake of doing this in front of subordinates, you are giving them permission to do the same…about anyone…(including you, by the way).  It is an insidious, respect-robbing trap that is hard to pull yourself out of:  Here’s how it works:

You talk bad about Dave to the guys in the office.  The guys in the office, some of whom really like Dave, immediately think you’re an idiot for talking bad about him to his friends (if the shoe fits).  Those who don’t know much about Dave, along with his friends, are either thinking a little less of Dave or a little less of you; and they are all thinking a little less of where they work. They all know that if you are willing to  talk bad about Dave to them, then there is no reason for them to believe that you aren’t talking bad about them to everyone else?  (none) – All of this gives the listeners permission to talk bad about you when you aren’t around; to continue the trash about Dave; and in the end you have accomplished nothing but bad things.  They get worse when Dave’s friends tell him about what you said (and they DEFINITELY will).  Now, your team member Dave is looking at you and KNOWS you don’t really like him much, or think bad things about him, but didn’t care enough to offer him any advice.  The chance of getting him to ask you for advice is now ZIP, and he continues doing whatever it is you thought was wrong in the first place.

Sound like a good idea?  Didn’t think so.

This  chain-of-errors  happens when you talk bad about a group in much the same way, but with one additional sticky-wicket for the offending basher:  Groups have a loyalty that goes beyond the individual.  Spend a tour talking trash about a guy, the behavior is damaging mostly at the local business unit level,  But talk bad about a group (“Those HR weenies this” or “Systems Engineering that“…and my personal favorite “Those idiots at HQ”) and that stuff will get to your next job before you do. (See article on “Trust” )

So what do we do?:

Well if the problem is, you know, you..then (deep breath) ….stop it.  Quit talking about and start talking to our guy, Dave.  You are missing an opportunity to do something that – you know – you get paid to do which is to help him improve.  True venting about a personnel problem is o.k.,  just make sure you’re the lowest ranked guy in the room (or at least tied for last place). If you find yourself listening to a discouraging word about your friend (or another person on the team….or a group on the team)   then interject with something disarming like, “Did you tell him (them) about your concerns?”  or, “Is there anything I can do to help you overcome your fear of conflict?”  or my favorite, “Are you telling me and not him (them) because you are afraid he (they)  might change your mind a prove that the real problem is you?”  (That one is just plain fun.)  When someone under you comes to you with a complaint about a co-worker, that’s cool.  Just don’t enter the bash session.  Your job is to calm them down and help them understand what they can do to effect a positive change.

Look, If if you work in a local pizza shop, I’d say complain away (those darn dough flippers think they are so cool..sniff), but that’s not what most of you do; most of you do serious work with missions that effect the lives of real people (not that Pizza doesn’t change lives) . The people sitting next to you need to (and want to) trust you.  It’s just a better life for everyone if they do.   All you do when you chose to “anti-mentor” is rob yourself of that trust  and them of their joy at work.   Now play nice –  back to the sandbox.

Disclaimer:  If this article made you angry, it’s o.k.  It’s only because you’re guilty.  Change.

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