Don’t Go There: How engaging in speculation, gossip and negativity affects your work ethic

By Diane Strzelecki

Forget the fat-laden birthday donuts loitering in the break room or the fun-size candies lurking on your coworker’s desk. Throughout my working life I’ve discovered hazards exponentially more detrimental to your emotional and professional health: gossip, speculation and hypercriticism. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a newbie in the library world, there’s plenty of examples of such indulgence – and plenty of reasons to resist.

Resisting the big “What If”

You’d have to be living under a rock not to understand that the economic uncertainty of the past five-plus years has led to greater insecurity in the workplace. The academic world is no exception. Diminishing public funding, declining student enrollment and deteriorating private endowments have brought the “ivory towers” down to earth. And yet we have a choice on how to approach this new reality. As a colleague of mine says, “we can get bitter or we can get better.” I think you know her choice. We can be bitter about these economic realities or we can get better in serving our patrons with the resources and staffing that we do have. We can occupy our days in wringing our hands over possible layoffs (especially ours) or we can engage ourselves in the job we have today. I’m not saying a little preparation isn’t necessary – even an optimist like me always has a current resume ready and keeps my network channels open. But obsessing takes a lot of energy, energy better directed in more positive ways. Focusing on the here and now with process improvements, a can-do attitude and care and attention to your surroundings is one of the best ways to demonstrate your value as an employee. Plus, practically speaking, it’s hard to come up with helpful collection displays and or clear signage when your vision is cloudy.

Knowing when to talk and when to be quiet

I’ve worked with my share of annoying people and patrons – I’m sure you have, too. Everyone can have a bad day. Some days it feels like everyone is having the same bad day! When a patron snaps at you because you asked for her ID or your coworker seems unusually taciturn, it might be a bad day for them and it probably has nothing to do with you. Smile. Commiserate. Give your coworker some space. Choose not to engage negatively. Some people are looking for a fight – don’t give it to them. Find some way to relate to them in a positive way. (If the nasty behavior continues among multiple patrons or coworkers, however, it might be time to evaluate your own interpersonal tactics. Just saying.)

When people are unhappy, they often complain about other people, for the simple reason that it makes them feel better. I’ve witnessed this on the other side of the counter, when I overhear salespeople, checkout clerks and, yes, library workers deriding customers. You might think this behavior goes against common sense, but you might also be surprised how many do it. When I hear this kind of talk, I tend to walk right past the counter and leave, simply because my question or request will probably be dissected right after I leave the counter.

The same thing goes for negative talk about our coworkers – it just isn’t productive. Engaging in gossip shows that you can’t be trusted, that you view yourself as better than others and that you have a bad attitude. It doesn’t matter that everyone else is doing it. If you’re stuck in a group when the conversation turns to gossip, my suggestion is to either become very quiet or offer some positive feedback about the person. For me, gossip is akin to playing in the mud – you might be able to clean yourself off somewhat later, but the dirt under your fingernails and the grime on your shoes never quite goes away.

Focusing on the positive

Sometimes you might feel justified in engaging in an especially lively session of organization-bashing – allegedly as a way to relieve stress. Of course your library or academic institution isn’t always perfect, but if you have a complaint or suggestion, why not offer it to a person who can do something about it? Sure, Marsha down the hall knows Peter who sits next to Bill who works with Susan who made a suggestion but no one listened to her. Don’t let the rumor mill immobilize you. Make your own suggestion. And if no one listens, at least you know you tried.

Finally, try to embrace the positive things your organization is doing. Adopt that good old “glass half full” attitude. Good things are happening everywhere, though sometimes you have to look a little harder to find them. Be part of the positive things your organization is doing. Try to create your own excellent customer service story. Work at doing things more efficiently in your little corner of the world. The best thing about doing your job well, trying to improve processes and/or addressing problematic situations is that you can leave work each day knowing you did your best.

Seriously, I’m not asking you to plaster a ridiculous smile on your face every day or administer unsolicited hugs or frolic through the tulips. You probably don’t want to go there, either. But by avoiding speculation, gossip and company-bashing, you can focus on what you really can control: your attitude and your work ethic. As motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said: “Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will.”

Diane Strzelecki works as a Library Technical Assistant at Roosevelt University Library – Schaumburg Campus (IL).