A Common Problem
A common occurrence on teams and in organizations, badmouthing is usually a symptom of an unhealthy team or work culture.
In its most basic sense, badmouthing is a dishonest way of praising oneself. "Look at me! I am better than Connie and George. Let me tell you all about them."
We are all occasionally tempted to vent our frustration by talking about others, but the price we pay for relief is far too high.
Let's take Sara and George. When George comes to Sara complaining about Frank, Sara's first thought is likely to be, "I wonder what George is saying about me when I'm not around?" How naïve Sara would be to be flattered by George's willingness to confide in her. A person prone to speaking negatively about others tends to be all about equal-opportunity; anyone is fair game.
Badmouthing destroys trust. Without trust, there can be no team. Trust is what makes honest, unguarded, productive discussion possible. Trust is what allows team members to focus on attacking problems, rather than each other. Trust is what keeps us from wasting time placing blame and defending our actions. It is what makes it possible for us to focus on the task at hand and reach our desired future.
The greatest barrier to putting an end to badmouthing is lack of courage. I have come to define courage as follows:
Courage - Talking to someone, rather than about him (her).
What a noble goal to be known as a person that never speaks ill of others. I would find it easy to trust a person like this.
Why don't we approach others directly rather than taking the coward's way out? We may fear the person's response (anger, crying, attacking us), the ultimate repercussions for sharing our thoughts, or may simply not know how to approach people with a difficult message.
Not only must we learn to speak directly to others rather than about them; we need to be on guard lest others drag us into their bad behavior.
When George approaches Sara and begins to talk about Frank, Sara can respond in a number of ways to let George know that she does not want to be a party to his treason. Before George gets his first sentence out, Sara can jump in with, "George, have you spoken to Frank about this? He is the one you need to talk to." Another approach is for Sara to simply say "Ouch!" as soon as George begins his diatribe. This should let George know that Sara wants no part of it.
If you are a courageous soul you may choose to go a step beyond monitoring your own behavior and refusing to let others drag you in. You can choose to call your colleagues to account for this behavior when you witness it going on.
I had opportunity to do this several years back while on a mission trip to Mexico. I was with a group of people that I did not know very well, with the exception of my sister and sixteen year old niece. I was in the women's quarters, adjoining dorm rooms packed with bunks, sharing a common bath.
The afternoon we arrived, I was unpacking some things by my bunk. I could not be seen by those in the adjoining room, but could clearly hear the conversation. About that time, I heard the Children's Minister of the Church badmouthing the Youth Minister to one of the other ladies on the trip. I thought, "Oh no, these ladies don't even know me, do I really need to step in?" I quickly thought about why we were in Mexico and how destructive badmouthing among our team members would be to our mission. I chose to intervene.
I walked over to the ladies and said, "I was unpacking in the next room and couldn't help but overhear your conversation. I don't think it's a good idea for us to be speaking negatively about others on our team. I happened to notice while walking over here that my sixteen year old niece is in the bathroom and I don't think it would be good for her to hear this." The ladies look at me a little strangely and mumbled, "Oh. Sorry."
"Phew, I thought. I'm glad that's behind me. The rest of the trip should be easy in comparison!"
I had not made it halfway to my bunk when I heard the ladies begin again; same theme, but this time they spoke more softly. I turned on my heel and approached them once more.
"I'm not sure I was clear about what I was saying a minute ago. It's not about how loudly you're speaking; it's about not speaking badly of others." "Oh!" They exclaimed, as if the fog had just lifted.
Later that evening my sister approached me, "How are things going so far? I know you were a little uncomfortable about not knowing anyone on the trip." "Oh I'm making friends left and right," I said. I then told her that I had overheard two people badmouthing a member of the team and had called them on it.
She drew her head close to mine and spoke conspiratorially, "So who were they?" I quickly caught myself in time and said, "If I told you, I'd be guilty of the same thing."
Be careful lest ye fall.
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