Have you ever had to work with a tattletale? Some of the parallels between childhood tattling and workplace tale-bearing came to mind while I was visiting a friend whose child kept appealing for adult intervention in her playdate. Exhortations not to tattle were completely ineffective — the child just kept coming back with new complaints about her friend. Luckily, her mother had the sense and the patience not to take the bait. But that’s not always so easy in the workplace.

Tattling in the workplace happens for many of the same reasons it happens in childhood: wanting attention; demonstrating that the tattler has absorbed the values of the parent/executive; manipulating the parent/executive to resolve problems outside the sphere of control of the child/employee. Chronic tattlers (both adults and children) continue the behavior because it seems to work — they get what they want or avoid what they don’t want.

In some organizations peers complain to their middle manager, managers complain to a senior executive — and both progress and relationships get stirred up in a cauldron of suspicion, “fact-finding,” and laying blame.

Keeping Tabs on Tattlers

I’ve helped clients with team dynamics in which junior managers tattle as a way of “managing” their relationship with a senior manager. For instance, Junior 1 wanted more attention from and a closer relationship with Senior 1, so frequently raised small problems with other people as a demonstration of loyalty: “See, I’m helping you be aware of things I know would bother you.”

In contrast, Junior 2 tattled as a distraction, knowing that Senior 2 would get so caught up in chasing down other team members’ mistakes that Junior 2’s mistakes would go unnoticed. In both of these cases, it took courageous efforts from other employees to show the senior managers that they were wasting time and energy on inconsequentials instead of pursuing productive discussion.

Junior 3 was constantly outraged — and enraged — by how badly everyone else behaved and how often they got their work wrong. She wanted everyone to be punished, but didn’t have the authority to do it herself. Her tattling was a way to channel her punitive instincts — which were so strong that they had held her back from becoming a more senior manager herself, despite her great functional competence.

Whatever the tattler’s impetus, it’s usually unproductive merely to give the feedback that tattling is undesirable. First, people rarely perceive themselves as being tattlers or accept the label; second, they don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to know who is screwing up and how.

So before you give tattlers feedback, try to discern what it is that they really want from you. If it’s attention or recognition or a response, identify their positive behaviors and recognize those. And try to spend more time mentoring them. One-on-one time can be a wonderful opportunity to improve their behavior: They’ll learn from your modeling and also feel reassured by your attention.

Turning Tattling to Teamwork

In general, people who feel powerful and have a sense of their own efficacy don’t need to tattle. But you’ll need to help tattlers recognize which situations they should bring to your attention and which ones they should be learning to manage on their own.

When Juniors need your backup to resolve various situations, the best help you can give them is to discuss and role-play how they could handle those circumstances by themselves or within their work group. These conversations may be an opportunity for covert tattling, so be alert as to whether they’re actually asking for help or just making sure that you know what so-and-so is up to.

Your internal alarm should go off anytime you hear something like, “I don’t want you to do anything about this; I just need you to know.” If that conversational opening is followed by “I’m going to handle this myself; I just want you to be prepared in case,” then it may be a sign that the tattler is learning how to step up; otherwise, your tattler might have just found a subtler way to make you aware of someone else’s flaws.

Use pointed examples to differentiate between tattling and whistleblowing. Juniors absolutely must report actual dangers, immorality, or illegality, or problems that they do not have either the formal or moral authority to address.

Perhaps the most difficult tattletales need to learn how to overlook annoying or unpleasant things: It could be a style they don’t care for, a personality they’d rather not deal with, something that’s less than optimal but truly doesn’t get in the way of the work.

As with children, it’s a real sign of maturity for employees when they learn what they need to let go.