Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, while small people talk about other people”. Gossip – informally talking in an evaluative way about others who are not present – is according to both lay perceptions and scientific evidence something that people who have lower power do more than their higher power counterparts (see e.g. Ellwardt, 2011). For instance, employees may gossip more than their managers, and middle managers may gossip more than top managers.
As the Roosevelt quote suggests, people who gossip are “small”, and they deserve to be judged negatively as being small-minded. But is that right? And, why do people who have low power gossip more than those with high power? What does having power to do with it? What is the role of gossip, anyway?
To answer these questions, we first need to understand what having low power means. Power – asymmetrical control over valued resources – guarantees greater access to rewards and less interference from others in pursuing rewards (Magee et al, 2007; Fiske & Berdahl. 2007). In the power relation the powerless are asymmetrically dependent on the powerful: subordinates depend on their managers more than managers depend on their subordinates. People who find themselves in a low power position have three sorts of limitations: limited access to information, because conducting their tasks may not require or allow them to be informed about organizational processes and changes, which could make them feel vulnerable or uncertain about their fate in the organization. Moreover, because low power people also have reduced control over resources, they may be limited in their capacity to influence their own outcomes or to pursue goals. Lastly, because low power people have little means of achieving their goals on their own, they need to form strong social bonds with others who might offer support or help in times of need. In short, low power people have limited access to information, limited influence and little means of achieving their goals on their own, and therefore need to develop trusted relations with co-workers.
How can gossip help low power people to cope with these limitations: low access to information, limited influence and need for strong bonds with colleagues? Gossip helps people to gather information about others and through these stories to understand their social environment. Baumeister and colleagues (2004) refer to gossip as “a mechanism of cultural learning”, because through gossip one can learn about the social norms one needs to follow in order to be successful and accepted by others. Fine and Rosnow (1978) point out that “gossip as information, by its transmission of culture and illumination of ambiguous areas of behavior, maps the social environment” (p. 162). Gossip allows people to observe what consequences different behaviors may have, without experiencing everything first-hand. Thus, gossip may be functional for low power people because it helps them gather information they otherwise have limited access to.
Furthermore, gossip is a mechanism for influence. Researchers have documented that people communicate and enforce social norms, and ensure group members’ cooperation by gossiping (e.g. Sommerfeld et al, 2007, Beersma & van Kleef, 2011). Gossip makes undesirable behavior difficult to hide from others. Moreover, because gossipers talk about others behind their back, they have complete freedom to manipulate the image of these people and influence the way their conversation partner thinks. Gossip has for many people a negative connotation specifically because gossipers can present others in in self-interested or malicious ways. Gossip may provide low power people an accessible way of exerting influence over others, and gaining control in their social environment.
Furthermore, people who frequently exchange gossip develop and maintain trust relations or even friendships. Robin Dunbar (1997) proposed that gossip is essential for social functioning and for maintaining social relationships. Empirical evidence suggests that indeed employees who engage in gossip are likely to become friends, and that especially negative gossip may enable people to bond with each other (Bosson et al, 2006). Low power people may gossip in order to develop such trusted relations with others, because for them social bonds can be a valuable resource.
In conclusion, due to its functions, gathering information, exerting influence and social bonding (Fine & Rosnow, 1978) gossip is a behavior that provides low power people with vital resources and it helps low power people to cope with challenges related to their position. . Although some gossip is meant to hurt other people, most gossip is spread without such negative intentions and has an important function, especially for low power people – “ the weak”. By being aware of the challenges low power people face, managers may understand better why their subordinates gossip, and may take a more understanding and less judgmental attitude towards those who gossip.