The Good Side of Gossip

February 16, 2017

Businessmen and business women gossiping near the office water cooler.

Although most people do not like to consider themselves as gossips, they have probably engaged in gossip at some point in their life. While the term gossip has developed a negative connotation in our culture, at its core it simply refers to conversations about a person who is not present. For employers with employees sharing workspaces or working in close groups, the worry can be that gossip is having a negative effect on performance and moral. But is gossip actually a bad thing?

Before tackling the impact of workplace gossip, it is important to cover some basics principles. First, we must answer the following question: who does engage in gossip? The answer is easy: everyone does. Researchers estimate that at least 14% of conversations during work breaks are considered to be gossip. In work-related gossip with their colleagues, both men and women engage equally. Gossip is also occurring at all levels of an organization, from front-line staff up to the C Suite.

The second question is: “What are people gossiping about?” This answer to this question is more complex, as the nature of gossip can vary so widely across organizations, types of employees, and can even involve many organizations that are not part of the conversation. As such, gossip can include a wide range of topics, from recent promotions to marital difficulties. And, while people do gossip about both of these topics and everything in between, there are some general trends in workplace gossip.

First, and perhaps most importantly, research suggests that in general, employees share more positive than negative gossip. This would be information that is not detrimental to the target, such as informing other colleagues about someone’s recent performance in a presentation, or that a colleague recently became a grandparent. Employees tend to gossip more positively about members of their work group, but also to a lesser extent more negatively about their group members than other people. People tend to gossip more about those who work closely with us, both because they have the greatest access to information on these people, as well as because these are the people that they are most interested in.

Another interesting research finding is that there tend to be certain people in organizations who are most likely to be the focus of gossip. Surprisingly, people in higher status positions are not more likely to be the object of gossip overall. But, while most employees are not using their breaks to trash their bosses, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. It appears that often workgroups have one or two people who are the primary targets of negative gossip. This is often the “scapegoat” employee who might not fit in socially with the workgroup. Sharing negative gossip about this person provides other members of the group the opportunity to develop closer bonds, while further relegating this employee. Although not always the most gossiped about team member, the boss is not impervious to this type of scapegoating. Supervisors and managers who are perceived as unfriendly or untrustworthy by their employees are much more likely to be the subjects of negative gossip. Managers who do not engage in frequent contact with their employees are also common targets. For this reason, it behooves people in positions of authority to engage regularly in positive, transparent interactions with their employees. If they don’t, their employees will simply build trust amongst their team, and will avoid the manager.

But what of the positive gossip that supposedly makes up the majority of workplace gossip? Much of the talk about other colleagues is shared not for nefarious reasons, but to share important information. For instance, while on the surface it may seem a negative thing that one colleague tells another one that their supervisor is always in a bad mood in the morning, it is actually beneficial for that second employee, who can now avoid unnecessary conflict with the supervisor. A great deal of informal information about the way in which organizations function can be shared through gossip.

It is through this type of discussion that employees learn which colleagues are the best at various tasks, as well as which ones to avoid inviting into group projects. There is also the sharing of information that reflects well on the person who is the subject of gossip, such as compliments on their personal qualities or on their work. These types of informal conversations, as well as those in which negative information is shared, also serve to build bonds between colleagues and to increase interpersonal trust.

At the end of the day, gossip is going to happen, and for the most part, it is actually quite beneficial for an organization. So, instead of policing others, or worrying about what they are discussing, just ensure that the information shared about others is accurate and helpful for the person receiving it. As for negative gossip, think about why you’re sharing it, because there are plenty of other conversation topics that may help you forge new friendships!

 

References

Kuo, C. C., Chang, K., Quinton, S., Lu, C. Y., & Lee, I. (2015). Gossip in the workplace and the implications for HR management: a study of gossip and its relationship to employee cynicism. The International Journal of Human Resource Management26(18), 2288-2307.

Ellwardt, L., Labianca, G. J., & Wittek, R. (2012). Who are the objects of positive and negative gossip at work?: A social network perspective on workplace gossip. Social Networks34(2), 193-205.

Ellwardt, L., Wittek, R., & Wielers, R. (2012). Talking about the boss: Effects of generalized and interpersonal trust on workplace gossip. Group & Organization Management, 1059601112450607.

Kurland, N. B., & Pelled, L. H. (2000). Passing the word: Toward a model of gossip and power in the workplace. Academy of management review25(2), 428-438.

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