One insidious way to undermine an entire group or product team is to allow or participate in gossip about other people–conversations focused around other people who “don’t do anything” or aren’t “busy enough.” It’s even more damaging when a leader initiates or participates in these conversations.

I once worked on a team where high value was placed on “how busy” everyone was. Some seemed to believe they possessed an omniscient ability to know “how busy” other people were even though they had minimal to no contact with them or understanding of their work.

At first it all seemed harmless. It felt good to hear about “someone who isn’t as good as me,” because that somehow made me better (only in my mind). Nothing good came from it. It felt good to be on the right side of “who is busy enough” until I realized the same criteria was being applied to me. That’s when I realized it was a losing game.

Trying to convince other people that you are busy enough is a race to the bottom. It’s an endless series of inauthentic positioning maneuvers focused on stuff that doesn’t matter–trying convince someone you’re innocent when they’ve already decided you’re guilty.

In the end it’s a toxic breeding ground for distrust.

Hearing and sharing gossip about the performance of others plants seeds of doubt that grows into distrust. As these seeds germinate and reproduce they spread like a disease. Over time an entire team is infected with distrust. Once distrust sets in, productivity grinds to a halt because nobody trusts that anyone else is doing the right things or spending their time in the right ways.

And this is the beginning of the end. Some team members take less initiative because, “nobody else is taking action, so why should I?” Others find themselves stuck in a place of inaction or going off to do their own thing (without involving others) because they don’t want to feed the gossip chain or be judged for the decisions and actions they’re taking.

I once had the opportunity to work with someone who had unknowingly received the badge of “not busy enough” and “focusing on the wrong things.” As I worked closely with them I discovered it wasn’t true. What made it worse, was when this person, unprompted by me, asserted that some of their unknown accusers weren’t “doing anything” and “focusing on the wrong things.”

That’s when I realized things were really bad and had little chance of improving. There was no trust between either side. Because both sides had made up their mind about the other side, there was no way anything could be seen in a positive light. It was like a relationship gone sour that’s reached the point of no return.

Next time you see a pattern of conversations around “how busy” other people are, look around and see if there aren’t other signs of distrust and dysfunction nearby. You might be in the middle of a team that isn’t functioning very well.