Toxic Talk in the Workplace

Keep communication channels open, and intercept rumors before they go wild.

By Stephanie Vlach, MS
May 20, 2014

Imagine that your beloved group exercise director has just given her notice. She is a well-respected, long-term employee, and now you have to hire someone new. Group exercise staff members are shocked by the news, and they start talking—to each other, to members, to friends and to anyone else who will listen.

After class, an instructor is conversing with a large group of members about the upcoming management change, and everyone wants to know the scoop. The instructor innocently speculates, “I heard she’s leaving because she had conflicting views with upper management.” Regardless of the truth, that statement starts working its way through the grapevine to other instructors, current members, potential members, administration . . . and, eventually, back to you.

Rumors, gossip and office drama—even seemingly meaningless chatter about a situation—can turn into toxic talk. Toxic talk is any activity that “disrupts the workplace, affects productivity, [criticizes] others or harms another’s reputation” (Business Management Daily 2014). In the example above, the group exercise director may be taking a step toward retirement, may have health issues or may just need a change. Regardless, word on the street is that “upper management is difficult.” Such a rumor can hurt feelings, damage reputations and impair relationships. Furthermore, it formulates a negative image about the facility and can affect current and potential membership.

Gossip communication does have a purpose. According to the American Psychological Association (2005), it’s a “way of making sense [of a situation] to help us cope with our anxieties and uncertainties.” Terri Fry Brukhartz, licensed clinical social worker and certified business coach, explains that “toxic talk comes primarily from two places: professional and personal insecurity. It helps employees control their situations and gives them a perceived boost of power and self-esteem.”

However, toxic talk has many negative side effects. “Toxic implies poison,” continues Brukhartz. “Toxic talk creates an environment of low productivity, lack of creativity, a fear of being criticized and an environment of paranoia amongst peers. Most people won’t flourish [in this environment]. Employees don’t want to be there, and managers lose good talent.”

What can we do to eliminate toxic talk and encourage more positive communication? Consider the following suggestions:

Be Aware

Tolerating or ignoring the gossip actually excuses and approves the behavior. Keep your eyes and ears open as you walk around the club. Are your employees chatting with clients about their latest Pilates session, or are they criticizing another instructor’s unconventional teaching methods? If a team member is gossiping with one facility member, chances are good that they’re also gossiping with others. It takes only one or two complainers to negatively affect an entire department.

“It’s important to find out who initiates this behavior,” says Brukhartz. “Others may engage in toxic talk, but it’s best to identify the source. Privately pull aside the folks who drum this stuff up, and start a conversation. Let them know that your ultimate goal is to create a great place to work and that negative talk is not working for the group.”

Additionally, be attentive to employee morale. If you notice a pattern of low spirits emerging, start asking questions. Quick action will reduce harm.

Set a Good Example

As managers, we are forced to have difficult conversations about performance, etiquette, complaints and such. Envision handling a member complaint about one of your trainers. The trainer has shown up late to the last three sessions, and the client has asked to work with someone else. You inform the trainer that you are transferring the client to a new trainer. The trainer is angry and doesn’t support your decision. Instead of acting professionally, this disgruntled employee turns to social media to vent, posting that you’re unfair, that you always side with the members and that you’re giving clients away to less experienced trainers.

Word travels fast. Many of the trainer’s “friends” are also facility members, clients and other employees. The following day, your office is flooded with angry phone calls and messages. Now what? You may feel like getting online and firing back; however, think twice. Don’t contribute to the negativity, even if you’re a victim of it. Always remain professional and lead by example. “It’s straightforward,” says Brukhartz. “Model the behavior you would like to see. Behavior comes from the top down.”

What strategy may work better than sending that online reply? Consider meeting with your team—including the angry employee—to articulate a policy of open, honest and direct communication. Work together to find more appropriate responses to situations such as this. Give staff a sense of ownership, and make them part of the solution.

Endorse a Team Atmosphere, and Respect Differences

Whether you’re a fitness director, a personal training manager, a group exercise coordinator or a combination of these roles, creating a team atmosphere can be challenging. Your entire staff isn’t in an office together from 9 to 5 every day. It’s more likely that you’re managing several part-time employees, all with varying schedules, class times, client sessions and backgrounds. Your 5:30 am yoga instructor may never cross paths with the 6:30 pm water fitness instructor. Still, it’s extremely important to endorse a team atmosphere.

Promote the tenet that every staff member brings something special to the overall mission of the department. This approach is a must. Outwardly respect the diversity of your employees’ knowledge, education, certifications and experience levels in order to boost and support the team atmosphere. Dan Houlihan, MS, owner of and head movement coach at Emergence Wellness in Chicago, makes this suggestion: “Sit down with each staff member individually to discuss the overarching purpose of the program. Not in a pressure situation, but in a way that would help [employees be] clear as to [their] purpose. Talk about why [they] do what [they] do and what clients are getting out of each session, each week and each year. This gives [value] and direction to what employees do on a daily basis.” When everyone understands the mission of the program, respects the need for diversity and works together as one unit, people are less likely to gossip and engage in toxic talk.

Find Alternate Outlets for Employee Voices

Employees want to be heard. If you’re not willing to listen, they’ll find someone who is. Make every effort to communicate, and give them several opportunities to project their voices. Here are a few ideas:

Formalize discussion times. Houlihan recommends giving staff members a discussion outlet. “Give employees time and space to bounce ideas off of and share experience with peers. Although it’s best to discuss the good, promote discussion of both the good and the bad in a safe, neutral environment.” This gives your team a professional setting for conversation, while limiting chitchat to their interactions with the general public.

Have an employee suggestion box. The nature of trainers’ and instructors’ schedules makes it impossible for you to be available to every employee at every moment. Create an employee-only suggestion box, and check for entries daily, weekly or whenever is best for you. Then, follow up with employees when appropriate. Although a suggestion box isn’t as personal as direct conversation, it’s a viable outlet for employees when you are not available.

Do an employee survey. A survey can be quick and comprehensive. Use it once or twice a year to collect valuable information about morale, lingering questions, concerns, ideas, etc. Surveys are a great tool for employees who are a bit bashful about expressing feelings directly. After gathering and organizing the information, address the results in an all-staff meeting or in a written summary via email.

Most importantly, commit to a gossip-free environment and openly communicate your expectations to staff. Keep your eyes and ears open, and take quick action if problems arise. Always promote open and honest communication, and create alternative contact channels when you can’t be directly available. Eliminating toxic talk will help you create and sustain a happy, productive and team-oriented environment in which employees are proud to work.

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References

Business Management Daily. 2014. Rumors and gossip rampant? What to do. www.businessmanagementdaily.com; accessed Feb. 6, 2014.
Rosnow, R.L. 2005. Science briefs: Rumor and gossip research. Psychological Science Agenda. www.apa.org/science/…/gossip.aspx; accessed Feb. 7, 2014.

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Stephanie Vlach, MS

Stephanie Vlach, MS, is a certified fitness professional with 17 years of experience. She has held numerous roles and positions within the industry. Currently, she is a group exercise instructor and freelance writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at [email protected]

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