Let’s face it. You do it. Your team does it. It might be one of your biggest pet peeves about work, but there’s no denying its efficacy as a communication method.
Gossip. It exists in some form or another in nearly every work environment (now almost entirely virtual as we work from home).
Quite often, this is contrary to our best efforts to shut down gossip wherever it exists. People gossip, and no rule, regulation, or requirement will stop folks from engaging in one of the most primitive forms of communication.
But there’s always that little bit of uncertainty. When is it appropriate to gossip, if ever? And how can you embrace gossip as a force for positive change?
By gossiping ethically and using it as a method for positive change.
Why do we gossip?
Gossiping is a simple yet highly impactful form of communication. As a communication mechanism with roots far back in human evolution, we use it for social bonding and interpret the world around us (particularly, the risks).
It’s an informal type of communication where there are often only two or three people involved at a time. The messaging and language tend not to be very complicated. Yet, the outsized impact of what we hear about someone else’s behaviour can, to a great extent, influence how we feel about them and view our own behaviour.
In its most basic definition, gossiping is to talk about someone who isn’t present, and according to some psychologists and behavioural scientists, it is a critical social skill. Gossip generally focuses on two key factors: others’ specific behaviour and our moral judgment about how these behaviours conform to social norms.
Some of the best leaders I’ve ever worked for or with, as defined by the results they achieved both personally and professionally, were highly adept at gossiping. It was a social skill at which they excelled.
However, their long-term success depended on the type of gossip they engaged in: positive or negative.
Where does it go wrong?
Gossip can either be negative or positive, although we tend to default to view gossiping as a negative behaviour, where we talk about others’ negative behaviour. The truth is, this is often the most common form of gossip. Spreading rumours about people, sharing misinformation, and getting the dirt on someone can all fall into this camp.
The narcissistic leaders I’ve observed practicing this type of gossip often fall victim to their own scorched earth practice of spreading rumours and adding to workplace hostility.
While negative gossip might be more exciting and entertaining, it has few potential benefits (maybe it helps identify those who are more or less trustworthy). The drawbacks are often considerable: it distorts information, reduces cooperation, and it can have a significant impact on the mental health of all involved.
But some leaders actively engage in gossip around the office (even virtually) with few of the negative after-effects. What do they do differently? They engage in positive, pro-social gossip.
Hearing positive stories and sharing information about the skills and abilities of others can strengthen an organization. Suppose Betty in sales tells Omar in operations that Ellen in accounting recently helped her set up a Slack workspace for Betty’s sales colleagues. In that case, Omar will now associate Ellen as an expert in Slack and may seek her guidance when using this tool.
Gossiping about a situation that’s bothering you (and not necessarily about the person involved) to a coworker can relieve anxiety by getting something off your chest.
In situations where we hear negative gossip, it often provides an opportunity to self-reflect on our own behaviour and consider how we can improve (both as a gossiper and/or contributor to anti-social behaviour).
The upside of gossip
When managed appropriately, gossiping can lead to positive outcomes. Here are eight tips to help you use gossiping as a helpful method of communication:
Counteract negative gossip as soon as you hear it and let people know in a kind but direct manner that negative gossip is not OK.
Don’t share personal information about others without their permission – ever.
Speak positively about your team when speaking to others. Share stories of their success and unique skills.
Decide how to use the information you hear. If it’s appropriate (positive) to share, do so in a way that’s helpful to others.
Reflect on the gossip you hear about untrustworthy people, but don’t pass on this information.
Don’t just let gossip happen. Model the behaviour you want your team to adopt (pro-social gossip).
Never gossip when it’s for personal gain.
Don’t exaggerate or embellish what you hear. Positive gossip that’s worth sharing can stand on its own merits.
Gossip need not be all bad. Quite the opposite! By appropriately managing positive, pro-social gossip, you can leverage an informal communication network to share ideas and improve collaboration.
DiGiulio, Sarah. “Psychologists Say Gossiping Is a Social Skill. Here's How to Know If You're Doing It Right.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, September 23, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/psychologists-say-gossiping-social-skill-here-s-how-know-if-ncna1056941.
“5 Benefits of Gossip (Even Negative Gossip).” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, June 22, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/one-true-thing/201506/5-benefits-gossip-even-negative-gossip.
Samantha Zabell Updated October 24, and Samantha Zabell. “Benefits Of Office Gossip.” Real Simple. Accessed February 10, 2021. https://www.realsimple.com/work-life/life-strategies/job-career/office-gossip-study.
Dores Cruz, Terence D., Bianca Beersma, Maria T. M. Dijkstra, and Myriam N. Bechtoldt. “The Bright and Dark Side of Gossip for Cooperation in Groups.” Frontiers. Frontiers, May 27, 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01374/full.