How To Deal With Water Cooler Talk

Water Cooler Talk

Water cooler talks are those nasty, backstabbing, grumble sessions that employees like to have from time to time at work. During those discussions negativity takes the lead and gossip rules the day.

Nothing good ever comes from it and yet it is a very popular pastime in a lot of workplaces.

“I like to refer to water cooler talk as “triangulation.”

Misery Loves Company

I call it triangulation because it usually starts with one person who brings in another person or a group of people, and then those two forces strike out against a third person or group.

The triangulation leader usually has a gripe with the intended victim and their intention is to drag as many other people as possible into the silent war they are waging against him, her or them.

After all, there is strength in numbers. And misery loves company.

Despite the obvious toxicity of this behavior, a lot of well-balanced, otherwise normal people find triangulation irresistible.

  • They rationalize it
  • They justify it
  • And they take no responsibility for it if they did not start it.

Always remember that in any triangulation session, EVERYONE involved is guilty of an offence.

“If left unchecked, this behaviour can totally destroy the morale of a workplace.

Caught in a Trap

It is a creeping cancer that most people find repugnant but feel powerless to escape. Those not involved in triangulation often start their own water cooler talks to bemoan the negativity they are sensing in their workplace.

Those conversations often lead to discussions about job opportunities with other employers that have a reputation for good morale and a positive work environment.

In the worst cases, triangulation can destroy the reputation of the victims involved or even ruin their careers.

Sadly, the people who start the triangulation or water cooler talks almost always accept no responsibility for it or the eventual negative results. However, if someone is harmed in some way, they feel that they won the war. And if challenged, readily justify their larceny with continued protestations of the victim’s wrongdoings.

A Negative Vibe

“Unfortunately, the world is full of people who have the ability to find negativity wherever they go and the charisma to bend other people to their point of view.”

Water Cooler Talk

If you are the leader in a negative workplace or are simply someone who is frustrated by the triangulation in your workplace, you need to take action the minute you are aware it is going on.

Confront the perpetrators and let them know that their behavior is unacceptable.

The only way to deal with triangulation is head-on!

If you are a leader who is not able to catch employees having negative discussions about someone else, but you know it is happening, have a staff meeting and get it out on the table.

What’s One To Do?

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Advise your people that you are aware of gossip, personality assassination and triangulation going on in your workplace.
  • Let them know that in your workplace, all people are to be treated with respect and kindness regardless of any personal differences or unique circumstances.
  • Tell them that your organization has procedures to deal with human resource issues in an appropriate and formal manner. To avoid confusion, describe them in detail.
  • Convince them that even though the perpetrators have not spoken directly to their victims about the apparent issues, they know what is going on.
  • Do not make the mistake of making a joke of it or softening the seriousness of it by accepting or explaining the behavior away as something all human beings do.
  • Let them know that you find the behavior disappointing and make it clear that if you find direct evidence of it, you will have no choice but to take serious disciplinary action against the perpetrators.

Ideally, if you have the time and resources, it is best to have personal development training sessions for all employees on a regular basis. The idea is to drive home the need for a positive environment and to emphasize the value of good morale. With persistent, consistent effort, in time you will be able to build a sustainable culture of co-operation and great morale for your workplace.

Additional Remedies

If you are an employee in a non-leadership position and are simply sick of the negativity in your organization, here are some things you might do to remedy the situation:

  • If you become involved in a triangulation session, advise the individuals involved that you do not feel the discussion is fair or appropriate.
  • Remain calm and do not resort to angry rebuttals.
  • Ask the main perpetrator if he or she has approached the victim directly to discuss the problem.
  • Discuss the situation with your immediate supervisor, manager, or human resources department.
  • Approach the victim privately and tell them what you have heard. Get their side of the story. Often triangulation is based in fiction and clarification will end it quickly.
  • If you work with a chronic triangulation perpetrator, avoid them and do not fuel their fire by showing interest in their negative talk.
  • If nothing else works, walk away! Do not stoop to being part of it…

Honestly, Now…

The only way to deal with problems between human beings is with open, honest and direct communication. Nothing is ever resolved with gossip or triangulation and nothing positive comes from negative words or actions.

Those who live to find fault with others are often talentless, miserable people who seek power by nefarious, underhanded methods.

Triangulation is one of the tools they use. Fortunately, no one can triangulate alone so if everyone else refuses to buy into their larceny the perpetrators will be neutralized and with luck, they will eventually fade away.

The powers of positive thinking, open honest communication, and proactive, deliberate leadership can overcome almost any workplace challenge. Try it…I guarantee you will like it!

Wayne Kehl is President and CCO at Dynamic Leadership Inc
He is author and behavioral analyst who lectures on leadership and motivation
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Vili on July 27, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Great article! It’s a real chronic problem in many organisations. The best way to discourage this, as you have identified, is to show water-cooler-talkers that you don’t like their stories by walking away and choosing not be part of their gossiping network!

  2. uwpreview on July 27, 2011 at 8:43 am

    “The powers of positive thinking, open honest communication, and proactive, deliberate leadership can overcome almost any workplace challenge.” This statement at the end of the post is on the money.

    In practice, however, I have seen this happen regularly in consultation and have been the victim of it as well, especially in smaller organizations where new employees have been hired to take on responsibilities formerly held by existing ones. Being the “new kid on the block” is difficult enough, but the failure of leaders to address the problem head-on as described or the assumption that it will somehow “go away on its own” is deadly to productivity and authentic teamwork.

    • Wayne Kehl on July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am

      Thanks Vili an Uwpreview. In my experience this is one of the most damaging situations to exist in any workplace and is sadly, very common.
      All The Best

  3. Pat Bird on August 1, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    I agree that this type of gossip can be damaging. I have seen work groups and entire departments torn apart with such behavior. I have also been involved in situations where the gossip concerned an issue that was being ignored by leaders and that needed addressing. When water cooler talk is a sympton of a real issue, it can point to a resolvable situation that leaves the workplace a better place to be. As you say, the key is an environemnt in which employees feel safe to raise difficult issues with leadership in an open and authentic, manner, thus negating the need for nasty water cooler gossip as a forum for change.

    • Wayne Kehl on August 1, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      You are so right, Pat…It all comes down to leadership…
      Thanks for your comments!

  4. […] read an article recently that spurred me on to have a rant. It was about “water cooler talk” and given my […]

    • Wayne Kehl on August 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      My article makes it clear that negative, harmful discussions are the problem. Normal, positive, helpful discussions are of course, good and would not qualify as water cooler talk. If employees care, their leaders should know about. Otherwise, the discussions have no meaning or value. As is the case with all things in life, mutual communication is the best cure. Thanks for referring me to your blog.

  5. […] a scathing attack on water cooler talk, Kehl refers to “nasty, backstabbing, grumble sessions” where “negativity takes the lead and […]

  6. Russell kehl | Topimages on March 3, 2012 at 9:31 am

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