Traditionally, gossip is viewed as a powerful force that can roll through an organisation like a gigantic snowball, dragging along unssuspecting people into some mucky water and splashing others with the filth. While that may be the case, a new research supports office gossip, and finds that it can be more useful than harmful. In that sense, Travia Grosser and Virginie Lopez-Kidwell, both doctoral students at Kentucky University in the US, think that instead of punishing gossip peddlers, managers should actually participate in the act.
The students, together with Gatton Endowed associate professor of management Joe Labianca, examined social interactions in a US company and concluded that gossip was, after all, a gift and not a weapon in reputational warfare as frequently presumed.
The study established that the more colleagues gossiped at the workplace, the more their workmates increased the rating of their influence in the office. It also established that generally, the gossipers had a better understanding of the working environment. A total of 96 per cent of the employees surveyed admitted to engaging in gossip at work. The big pointer in the simple survey that involved 30 out of 40 employees, was that predominantly positive gossip occured more often (21 per cent) than predominantly negative gossip (7 per cent).
These findings are already creating debate in management schools and confusing managers who have often cosidered gossip to be derogatory. In defending the findings, Professor Labianca is reported by Harvard Business Review to have stated: “Gossip can be very helpful to people in organisations, especially when the flow of information from the top gets choked off, as often happens when companies are in crisis or undergoing change.”
Prof Labianca’s arguement was that once only a few people knew what was happening within an organisation, then gossip became the legitmate and dependable voice of spreading information to the rest. As much as gossip can create anxiety among employees, it could psychologically prepare them for the impending event or uncertainty well in advance. The other positive result of gossip, is that it promotes connection among gossiping colleagues, who subconsciously build and get emotional support from one another. Gossiping can also assist employees to identify the kind of people they work with, their limits with others and how to deal with various workmates. It gives an insight into the office socialist, bully, playboy et al.
The bigger picture, advises Professior Labianca, is that from organisational point of view, gossip can serve as a diagnostic tool. His arguement is that managers who have an ear to the ground stand a good chance to get word about “potential troublesome issues as they arise” and therefore be able to take necessary action to prevent the situation from exploding. The study further advised that managers should also gossip since they need a lot of information to carry out their work. But they should carefully choose who to gossip with. These results and recommendations suggest that punishing gossipers may not be the right thing to do.
In fact, according to the researchers, trying to fight gossip with an iron fist and without addressing the issues that inspire the action often backfired and ended up firing up more gossip, much of it the negative type.