Gossip in the workplace

Gossips take heart: Not all gossip is harmful.

A number of newly minted (or almost-minted) Ph.D.s in organizational behavior are making presentations at the Kennedy School of Government this week as part of a job search we are conducting for new junior faculty. The presentations open a window on organization-related research topics that young academics — most of whom come from Ph.D. programs at leading business schools — are studying.

One presentation we have heard is on gossip in organizations. Don't laugh (or gossip!) about this. This isn't necessarily a frivolous topic. Most people probably have the intuitive reaction that organizational gossip — that is, talk between two people about a third person who is not present, often negative — is at best a worthless waste of time and at worst harmful.

The research we heard suggests a more complex picture. For her dissertation, the presenter conducted an experiment in which pairs of student friends were recruited to work on a task. Some of the pairs were instructed to gossip about common acquaintances while doing the task, others just to work on the task without interruption. The gossiping pairs, it turns out, developed warmer feelings and trust for each other than the non-gossipers.

More importantly, the various pairs engaged right after the task session in a negotiation exercise that involved creation and distribution of joint gains. The gossiping pairs did significantly better in the negotiation than the non-gossiping ones. The social ties that gossiping produced promoted better performance in an activity in which trust and positive feeling could improve the outcome.

However, the impacts of gossiping were not all positive. In a second study, randomly assigned student teams interacted over the course of a semester on a task. They were filmed to see how much gossiping they spontaneously engaged in. The more the students gossiped about other members of the team, the lower the team cohesion and the poorer the team's performance. However, gossiping about people outside the team — such as sports figures or other celebrities — had a positive effect. Perhaps, I suggested (only partly joking), the lesson here was that managers should buy all employees a subscription to People Magazine.

That study might have had methodological problems, however: During the presentation, one colleague wondered whether the higher level of gossip was a result of poor cohesion and team problems, not a cause. The results did control for team self-reports about the overall atmosphere in the team halfway through to try to take that problem into account, but very possibly a midpoint measure might have come too late in the experiment.

At any rate, I came away from the presentation feeling I had learned something — and something that wasn't obvious and was possibly even counterintuitive for all those managers who try to stamp out gossip in the workplace. (Do any readers' workplaces have the "gossip-free zone" signs?) I was also impressed by something else: The PowerPoint skills of today's 20-somethings. I barely manage PowerPoint presentations that attain the level of several colors, typefaces and primitive text animation. Many presentations by new Ph.D.s — and a presentation attendee who had until recently been a hospital CEO told me the same was true for the presentations of young physicians — feature visuals, cartoons, jokes and playful animation. I am envious.

NEXT STORY: GPO head Tapella resigns

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