Have a zero tolerance for bitching, period. It doesn’t matter who the target is, they could be in your team or another, it is corrosive and if unchecked can spread and infect the culture of your team.
When John starts complaining about Steve behind his back it may seem reasonable to those present at first. May be Steve really is lazy, or never checks his work carefully or lacks personal hygiene. This is how it can start, justified complaints being aired to release some steam. But John complains about Steve a bit more and a bit more and then starts on someone from another team. John has now lost the trust of his colleagues and he doesn’t even know it. People who bitch lose the trust of their colleagues. If John is happy to speak badly about a colleague then no-one knows if he also speaks about them.
It is so easy to add your own complaints after hearing someone air their own. Soon the team is complaining about Steve on a regular basis, team mates responsible for recent bugs, the ops team for making a mistake during the last deployment, the software architecture, the choice of technology, the clients because they never know what they want. The list is endless and nothing or no-one is safe from it. Guess what? Now you have a team that don’t trust each other and are far from the “we’re great” attitude you’re striving for.
In addition to removing trust, it also dehumanises people – it reinforces “us” and “them”. Those idiots in the ops team don’t know what they’re doing. The web team have screwed up the website again. However the failures of your own team are either forgotten or responsibility placed on another team member. Once other teams are “them” all positive team to team collaboration goes out the window and it can even affect the way your team members speak to them. Soon enough the stature of your team suffers as other teams see this self-righteous attitude and start to tear down the charade. They start pointing out every failure caused by your team and soon enough you are the butt of every joke.
Finally, bitching is just plain bullying. It is ugly and it has no place in your team.
So what to do about it
When you hear John complaining about Steve, take action. The how depends on where you are, your team and your own style, but if you don’t stamp out the bitching now then you’ll be on the path to what we described earlier.
I usually like to tackle it mainly in private in one-to-one conversations. So I would speak to John later that day and explain that complaining about Steve behind his back is not acceptable. If he has a grievance with Steve then let’s try and resolve it. If I think the grievance is valid, that Steve is not checking his work carefully enough, then I will usually end up talking to Steve about it. I will sit down with him and try and turn it around. John needs to know that I am dealing with the situation and that the complaining needs to stop immediately.
I also tend to talk with the other team members who have been present or even contributed a little to the complaining and advise them not to get involved in bitching. If they hear it then to not get involved. I explain that if they bitch then people lose trust with them, once they realise that point they don’t need any more explaining.
Everyone screws up
One of my mantras in my team is that I tell people to not bitch about the failures of another team member or another team because next week it will be you. Everyone screws up. No-one is safe from a screw up. I tell my team that if someone has screwed up then stay positive and if you can help resolve the problem then lend a hand. Guess who will come help you when you screw up? This even goes for other teams. If there has been a big screw up made by another team but I can help then I will. I am very careful to stay positive, or at least neutral in tone and make it 100% about making the situation better. When all is resolved I praise the good work of everyone who helped. That doesn’t mean that screw ups go unnoticed, the forensics investigation needs to happen, mistakes needs to be identified, lessons need to be learned – but all with the right attitude. “We need to fix this together” not “your team screwed up”.
If you are known for having that attitude and that you help not hinder things when things go wrong then you’ll have the help and support when it is your team’s big screw up, and few people talking behind your back about how your team doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Bitching is easy to tackle if you nip it in the bud but harder to tackle if it becomes part of the culture of the team. If it is commonplace then you’ll have it harder but you’ll still need to work on it. Be firm, be consistent and be positive above all!