Have you ever heard somebody say these words? Have you uttered them yourself? At first glance they seem innocent, but they can kill your credibility as a leader. 

“Don’t tell anybody I told you, but…”

If sharing the information that follows these words with a person requires the caveat that ‘they didn’t hear it from you’ then there’s a good chance you are breaking the trust of the person who confided in you.

As a team member when you hear these words from your leader, it raises the question “if they are willing to speak like this about somebody to me, what are they saying about me to somebody else”. Ultimately asking the question ‘can I trust this person?’. 

As a leader, trust is imperative for building a great team or organisation and the cost of broken trust is more than just financial. In his book ‘The Speed of Trust’ Dr. Stephen R. Covey suggests:

Trust always affects two measurable outcomes – speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up.

If the impact is so significant, why does it still happen? 

Leading social scientist for business performance Joseph Grenny suggests some illusory benefits that stimulate an appetite for gossip, which include: 

  • Status. Access to gossip confers social status — we feel we are part of a privileged group who’s “in the know.”
  • Intimacy. It creates the illusion of intimacy between the sharer and the recipient. Our mutual secret creates a collusion that feels like connection.
  • Trust. The passing of illicit information is always accompanied by an explicit or implied request for confidentiality. This creates a suspect feeling of trust between the two.

A word never leaves your mouth without consequence. Each word you speak is shaping and building your credibility and reputation.

But a leaders credibility isn’t just on the line when you say these words, but it is also affected by how you respond when you hear them. If your ear is a magnet for these conversations, it might be worth considering what past conversations you have allowed.  

So how do great leaders respond? I believe they hold themselves to these simple convictions:

1. If I can’t say it in your presence, I won’t say it in your absence: You can confide in me knowing that what you share with me, will stay with me.

2. What I will allow, I will affirm: I will not become an enabler by giving my ear to harmful gossip.