There is a culture within your team/organisation of gossip. Conversations are happening ‘offline’ and behind backs all of which is proving harmful – as it always is! You realise you need to check this behaviour and simply saying, “don’t do it” hasn’t proved to be effective.
Changing (bad) habits is difficult. The reason as to why past ‘decrees’ to put an end to this destructive behaviour haven’t worked is that people may not feel empowered or have the tools to stop gossip happening. You need to create an awareness in the moment and then give people something they can do in that moment to stop the unhelpful conversation. You need a ‘word’ much like a ‘safe word’ might serve as a key to convey a message in another type of situation. The word to use is ‘ratline’. The ropes that tied ships to a wharf where known as ‘ratlines’ as that is how rats on the wharf used to get access to the ship and the store holds where gain and other food sources were kept.
Conversations that take place behind the back or about others when they aren’t present are ratlines.
By naming unhelpful conversations as ‘ratlines’ you create a common language that can be used to stop the conversation dead in its track. Everybody knows what is meant when someone, in the midst of a conversation, might say, “is this a ratline?” It is important to agree on a process that kicks into place once a ratline is identified. It should involve immediately halting the conversation. The person calling the ratline might then say, “you need to be having this conversation with X…not me. Can you do that or would you like me to support you in having that conversation?”
Once ratlines start being called realigning conversations with the right people (and of course having them in the right way) becomes far more likely. It is a start to eradicating those unhelpful conversations that undermine others and poison the culture. Creating a common understanding of the destructive nature of such conversations and then giving everyone a shared language or tool (the word ‘ratline’) is a start. Of course, it will need to be activated and then consistently practised but I have seen this simple yet powerful tool used to great effect in a variety of situations where unhelpful conversations were proving to be destructive and were killing the culture.