Gossip is a universal aspect of human communication, which occurs during 60-70% of our speaking time. Evolutionary psychologists believe that gossip, or evaluative talk about others who are not present, has shaped the development of language and human interaction within groups.
Gossip is an important part of modern organizations, where it often has a strange reputation. On the one hand, we gossip with a great appetite about both private and work related details of our coworkers’ lives, while on the other hand, gossip is among the social phenomena with a most negative reputation. In fact, as employees and managers we make efforts to stop the spreading of gossip, which we perceive to be a threat to the organizational goals and to the well-being of individuals who work there. Managers see gossip as idle talk, purposeless chit-chat or deliberate waste of working time, which is equal to theft of organizational resources. For employees gossip can constitute an invasion of their autonomy and privacy; being examined by others behind one’s back can threaten one’s reputation and informal status. Although gossip can also be appreciative, mostly we think exclusively of derogatory gossip when we hear of gossip. Social norms explicitly instruct us to avoid gossip, and prescribe punishments for those who are discovered to participate in gossip. Research shows that indeed high gossipers are less liked, seen as less powerful and often rejected by members of their social circle.
But why, in spite of strong social opprobrium, do we dedicate so much of our time to spreading and gathering evaluations about others? Simply, why don’t we just mind our own business?
Gossip fulfills a number of important social functions for individuals and groups in organizations. It facilitates the socialization of new employees in the organization, as it easily communicates what is and what is not considered to be acceptable or desirable. Gossip also reinforces social and organizational norms, by emphasizing what the rules are and what consequences we can face for breaking them. When confronted with a member that contributes to group efforts less than he should, groups experience an increase of negative evaluations about this person, along with an increase of positive evaluations about exemplary members. Therefore, negative gossip in the workplace may protect our group from being exploited by social loafers.
As employees, we find negative and positive gossip to be accessible sources of information, allowing us to gain knowledge about how, why, in which circumstances co-workers engage in a certain behavior, and also what is the consequence of that behavior for the individual engaging in it and for others. This kind of information is invaluable, because it allows us to become aware and learn from what others do, without having to experience everything first-hand.
The information we gain from gossip can help us compare ourselves with others who are in a similar position in the organization. This social comparison helps us quickly evaluate our own performance. A comparison with a co-worker who is doing worse than we are is flattering, while a comparison with someone doing better may make us feel envious or threatened, but also motivated to improve our own performance.
Gossip helps build alliances, trust and friendship between coworkers, which increases job satisfaction and also allows the organization to function more efficiently. The formal hierarchy in many organizations is paralleled by an informal structure. Through the gossip networks, we are able to transmit information in a timely manner, allowing the managers or other employees to access information and react much quicker than they would through the formal channels of communication.
Importantly, we can use gossip as a means of exerting informal social pressure; for example gossiping about a co-worker who does not conform to the group norms or does not share the group values will pressure this person to display less defiant attitudes or behaviors. As lower status employees we can also use gossip in order to express disagreement or aversion with the way management is dealing with problems. For a good reason gossip is called “the weapon of the weak”, as it can pose a serious threat to the authority or legitimacy of employees in power positions.
In times of organizational change gossip can help us deal with the associated uncertainty and anxiety, by communicating other’s knowledge and opinions on the matter, which helps us make sense of what is going on, but also by providing a more or less benign outlet for the negative emotions we might experience. Gossip functions as a de-pressurizer whenever we experience conflict or frustration in the workplace. It offers a relatively harmless way of solving our conflicts with co-workers, because engaging in negative gossip may help us avoid direct confrontations, which is sometimes the best option for both the functioning of the organization and the individuals involved.
To conclude, there are many possible reasons which determine us to seek or spread gossip about co-workers: need for quick information, learning from other’s experiences, increasing self-esteem, socializing new employees, identifying and punishing lazy group members, making friends, dealing with uncertainty and conflict, challenging the authority, and so on. In order make this unique social phenomenon work for the benefit of the organization, both managers and employees need to stop regarding gossip as something ultimately negative, which should be prevented from “infecting” the workplace, and spend more effort understanding when and why people are eager to spread or listen to gossip.
Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8, 111-121.
Wert, S. R., & Salovey, P. (2004). A social comparison account of gossip. Review of General Psychology, 8, 122-137.