How Trash-Talking Can Bond Your Team but Weaken Your Leadership

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We humans love to talk about each other.

Anthropologists suggest that this is our version of primates’ manual grooming behavior. While chimps create trust and mutual benefit by picking fleas off each other, we do it by sharing entertaining chit-chat about people we know.

And we especially love to share the juicy or bad stuff. 

No wonder, then, that managers are tempted to talk disparagingly to their employees about other groups in the company. Maligning the out-group is a fast, easy way to strengthen the in-group.

Has Brad’s team EVER met a deadline?” you might kvetch to an employee.

Or you might sneak a winking slight into a team meeting: “Something tells me THAT’S going to send Jenn into a tizzy . . .

In the moment, these comments feel great. Gossiping has been shown to strengthen relationships and even release oxytocin—a hormone that plays a role in relational bonding—in your brain.

But in the long term, trash-talking colleagues to your employees weakens your ability to lead.

A strong leader builds connections between groups in the organization. They operate as a representative of the whole organization, not just of themselves or their team. Disparaging comments like these sacrifice broader company performance for a brief moment of in-group solidarity. It also:

  • Shows employees you’re unwilling to address issues with the person/team you’re talking about.
  • Makes them wonder what you’re saying about them behind closed doors.
  • Risks the comments getting back to the parties you’re disparaging, deepening rifts.


If you feel the impulse to say something negative about a colleague, ask yourself why you’re not respectfully addressing the issue with that colleague. It might not be fun, but difficult conversations are what managers do.

So:

  • To build short-term, unhealthy group bonding, belittle other groups in the organization.
  • To build long-term, healthy group bonding, share constructive information and stories with employees.


The “constructive” stuff doesn’t have to be just compliments and good news. In fact, as we’ve noted, sharing things employees know you don’t want to is a great way to build trust.

But if all you have to say is a cheap dig at the out-group, address it directly—or at least save it for happy hour with nonwork friends.

Alicia Thrasher

Alicia Thrasher

Alicia is cofounder and CEO of MGR360. Previously, she brought her leadership, vision, and strategic oversight to many executive positions, including leading programs for eBay/PayPal, Google, and Anheuser-Busch.

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