Complaining, Gossip, Sarcasm and Other Office Ailments

“Corporate culture matters. How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything – for better or for worse.” ~ Simon Sinek

Workplaces are made up of people. And people are, well… people.

Complaining, Gossip, Sarcasm

And people can be motivated and driven by invisible and incomprehensible forces… Our brains don’t work the same, and yet we expect other people to think, act and behave like us, and we are constantly surprised when they don’t!

Here are some winning ways to avoid these seductive office honey-traps.


“Be grateful for what you have and stop complaining – it bores everybody else, does you no good, and doesn’t solve any problems.” ~ Zig Ziglar

In my experience, complaining is contagious. Someone complains about something. Often something relatively harmless and mundane, and we want to seem empathetic, so we commiserate. We nod in an understanding way. We may even go so far as to elaborate a little on the point of the original complaint. We agree. We endorse. And ultimately, we get caught up in the same ‘vibe’ as the original complainer.

Complaining, Gossip, Sarcasm

Now the complainer has a brief little rush of happy brain chemicals from having such a reinforcing chat with you. And you, on the other hand, are primed to start finding fault with other things.

Meanwhile, your new buddy rushes off in search of more happy brain chemicals in the form of one of your unsuspecting colleagues.

The printer gets a paper jam halfway through your urgent job, and minutes later you’re complaining about that to another colleague. Cue commiserations, nodding, elaboration, agreement, endorsement… and you’ve passed the virus on…

So what should you do instead?

Instead of becoming caught up in the negative vibe, be the cure!

Now you need to judge what will work in the circumstances, but here are some starters:

  • Smile and say “surely it’s not that bad?”
  • Ask: “what have you done to try and fix it?”
  • Offer “can I give you a hand?”
  • Pivot – and change the subject
  • Avoid… in the worst case, you may need to just walk away. But use this approach sparingly!


“People gossip. People are insecure, so they talk about other people so that they won’t be talked about. They point out flaws in other people to make them feel good about themselves. I think at any age or any social class, that’s present.” ~ Blake Lively

I had a boss once who spent most of our one-on-one meetings gossiping about my peers – his staff.

Complaining, Gossip, Sarcasm

I was young and impressionable at the time, and initially felt special – like I was on the ‘inside’ – I was excited that I was in his confidence. But after a few weeks I realised something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. He had many other fabulous qualities as a manager, but just couldn’t help himself.

Then I realised I was actually a bit scared. Scared that in his meetings with everyone else, he was talking about me!

And the worst part is that the easiest thing in the world would be to participate – to contribute to the gossip. To speculate. To ponder. To exacerbate.

So what should you do instead?

In my view, gossip is even more insidious than complaining. It feels like fun. And there’s often a fine line between discussing genuine work related matters: “did you know that Lisa’s been promoted?”; and innuendo/hints/suggestion… “… I wonder what she had to do for that?…”

You need to avoid any collusion and stop it in its tracks, and here are some ways to do that:

  • Raise an eyebrow, then change the subject
  • Express your disapproval: “I don’t think that’s appropriate”
  • Confront the behaviour: “Gossip is harmful, and not something I want to be a part of”


“Sarcasm is like cheap wine – it leaves a terrible aftertaste.” ~ Dana Perino

Possibly the least harmful of the three, and from time to time, sarcasm can provide a humorous interlude (when it’s accompanied by self-deprecation, for example).

Complaining, Gossip, Sarcasm

But in reality, sarcasm is very closely related to complaining, especially if there’s a kernel of ‘truthiness‘ to it.

If sarcasm is delivered in the form of humour, a little chuckle is probably OK. But if the sarcasm is a sting in the tail of retort, or the single line response to an idea delivered in a meeting, or in reply to a suggestion, it’s best to nip it in the bud directly. The individual may not even be aware of their sarcasm… especially if it’s gone unchecked for a long time.

So what should you do instead?

If it’s not being delivered in a good-natured way, you need to speak up, because it can be a slippery slope to outright bullying, or prejudice.

Try to:

  • Call the behaviour out as inappropriate: “hey, that’s not necessary”
  • Encourage self-awareness and reflection: “is that the best way to respond?”
  • Anticipate it before it happens and set some ground rules for the meeting (or other situation)
  • Apologise to the recipient: “I’m sorry about Fred’s behaviour, that’s not how we like to do things around here” (be wary of this approach, there is a risk that you embarrass Fred, which shouldn’t be your intent… two wrongs etc)

…Other Office Ailments

And a final note on office culture and politics.

Don’t engage in game playing. I promise you, you don’t know enough about any of your colleagues to accurately predict how they will behave or respond. You may get away with it the first few times, but people  will gradually become distrustful of your approach to things, and eventually you’ll start to find it hard to get things done. Don’t:

  • Set up situations to see how others will respond
  • Refuse to engage until someone else does something first
  • Undermine a colleague to gain favour with the boss
  • Show someone up in front of their colleagues
  • Basically anything designed to make you ‘appear’ better than someone else

Remember the golden rule – treat others as you’d like to be treated… It’s pretty hard to go wrong with that one!


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