There are lots of good types of One on Ones. There’s the Breakthrough One on One. That’s a tough one to beat. There’s the Problem Solving One on One. The One Level Deeper One on One is always energizing. The Look Ahead One on One is crucial, and when it’s done well, it becomes the most important one you do. These one on ones are energizing. You leave reminded of why you signed up for this. Of course, these aren’t the only kinds of one on ones you’ll have.
There are tougher types of One on Ones. There’s the Venting One on One. The Venting one can be good if it leads to relief, but if it doesn’t it can also stay an unfinished sentence just lingering over everything. Of course, there’s the I’m Putting in My Notice One on One. It’s tough to get worse than that. The Silent One on One is particularly difficult, although, hopefully, you can pick up some ways to maneuver around it.
There are a few tricky types of one on ones that at first appear to be worthwhile but quickly take a turn. There’s one in particular that’s especially hard to identify. You’re in a conversation that’s moving smoothly. You might even describe the conversation as lively. And then, the topics start to turn. You may not notice it five minutes in. You may not notice it after ten minutes. But after some conversation jumps you’re left with no doubt: you’re in a Gossip One on One. And what felt great starts feeling less than.
Identifying the Gossip One on One
From the start of a one on one, you should be asking yourself “Where is this going?” You want to be listening, engaging, discovering the mood and tone of the person you’re with, and figuring out how you can best help. What makes the Gossip One on One so tricky is that it camoflouges itself. It starts off as a Laid Back One on One. It looks like the kind of conversation where the introductions last for more than a few beats. It looks like you’re just talking about anything. It’s all kind of relaxing.
The Gossip One on One can really only be identified at the turn. The conversation was mostly idle watercolor talk: the latest lunch and learn, last week’s happy hour, the new snacks in the office. And then things ramp up. You hear, “I’m bummed that Valerie’s gone. Did she know she was getting let go?” That shift you feel where your weight ends up on your heels? That’s the Gossip One on One making itself known. All of a sudden, you find yourself discussing topics that would be found on your organization’s proverbial Page 6. It doesn’t always start as a question, either. A prodding statement can be your red flag. “Dave seems pretty down lately. I heard he was promised a promotion but never got it.” The thrash is real, and you need to steer the conversation back to a helpful place.
When you see the conversation heading toward gossip, you want to stop the conversation. The gossiper is usually excited. You want to send signals that you are not going to engage. You can’t instantly turn the ship around. Of course, it’s tempting to call the gosip out. To say you’re not going to stand for it. To put a stamp and quell the gossip. Stand up and call out that you’re not going to put up with it! Unfortunately, this doesn’t help. Shame is rarely the best ally.
Instead, gently steer the conversation in the right direction. You want to get back to a productive place. Find a topic that is one level above the one your colleague wants to gossip about. Find a topic that is helpful. This slight shift works because you are not hard changing the subject. A subject change would put you on the defensive. And it’s hard to be helpful when you’re defensive. It’s the gentle steering that helps keep the ship afloat.
Information is a gas that fills the room. When there is not enough of it, something else will take its place. One Gossip One on One likely isn’t indicative of a backchannel, grapevine culture, but if you and your colleagues are seeing a trend in this direction, it’s worth considering preventive measures.
Gossip can form in one of two ways: it gets created quickly after critical events and it is always getting made slowly in opaque cultures.
A critical event could be a number of things like layoffs, reorganizations or even a new executive hire. With any critical event, you want to make sure that you and your management team have a shared sense of what is happening. Discuss the event as a group and make sure everybody can communicate the why. Then as a group make sure you have a communication strategy that is appropriate for the event. And be proactive with that communication. Gossip gets created in the space between the first time somebody hears about something and the time that they understand the why.
Gossip also gets created every day in opaque cultures. Think about your typical week. How often are you having conversations in rooms with other managers and other leaders? Even if you know those conversations can be mundane and generally administrative, your team is seeing your calendar full and your time being spent with other decision makers. It’s key here to build a culture of transparency. Hold regular all-hands to level out messaging. Share meeting notes in easily accessible channels. These actions let the pressure out of the office. Sure, there are always going to be some conversations that need more context or some that require more intimacy, but if you and your management peers are shining a light on all of the other conversations, there’s less space for gossip to grow.
The Gossip One on One can’t always be avoided, but preventative measures help ensure you find yourself in them far less often. Increase your culture around transparency as a management team. And when critical events occur, make sure your management team is prepared for a communication strategy to match. Remember, the more time a “what” exists without a “why” the more chance gossip has to thrive.
When you’re in a one on one, know the signs of gossip. Recognize when the tone has shifted from casual conversation toward casual prodding. When you sense the shift, avoid a sudden change in subject, and instead calmly steer the conversation toward a more productive place.
To all of you, I wish the best and most productive of one ones. And, at the very least, I hope you can avoid Page 6 topics in your one on ones.