When should I gossip?
Q: Under what condition is gossiping good? A: If you share accurate evaluations about others, and keep your negative comments about people with lower status at bay.
This article began with a tweet. Dave Beck pulled me into this conversation (Thank you!)
If you read closely, the tweet raises two questions:
- Under what condition is gossiping good?
- How do healthy communication networks look, and can we help create them?
Not stated clearly, there is also the assumption that gossiping is part of a healthy communication network. This goes against the general convention that gossiping is terrible and should be avoided. Just think about how gossiping is portrayed in movies.
As the first question is easier to answer than the second, I dug into it guided by the following questions:
- Under what condition is gossiping good (i.e., useful) or bad (i.e., not useful)?
- Who is spreading good and bad gossip, and about whom?
A couple of things to keep in mind while reading:
- I’ve looked at the role and value of gossip within an organization.
- I’ve not included research from (social) psychology.
- I’ve limited my research to understanding the link between gossip and social networks.
What is workplace gossip?
Workplace gossip is defined as
informal and evaluative talk in an organization about another member of that organization who is not present (Ellwardt, Labianca & Wittek).
Please keep this definition in mind while reading the article. The definition of gossiping used by researchers includes praising someone and talking trash about someone. Most people associate gossip with sharing unflattering information or, in some other way making someone else look bad. Thanks to movies and tabloid newspapers, this view of gossip have been cemented in our minds. But the definition of gossip used in this article does not limit gossiping to only spreading nasty rumors. It is simply an act of talking about someone behind their back.
Let's look at three key elements from this definition to make sure we are talking about the same thing: in an organization, evaluative, and informal. I'm focusing on these three words to help clarify the difference between the mainstream definition of gossip and the one I've taken from scientific articles.
First, the words in an organization mean that gossip happens within a specific, delimited group. Here, it's the organization as we are talking about workplace gossip. But it could also be a community, school, or friendship circle. Important is that the object of the gossip and the people gossiping are members of the same group. If I talk about my boss with team members, I'm gossiping. But it is not gossiping if I discuss my boss's actions with my friends who are not employed by the same organization. It's just talking (e.g., venting or boasting). Why is this important? When I speak positively (or negatively) about a co-worker with a friend, this will have no consequences for my co-worker.
Secondly, by describing gossiping as evaluative, gossiping is a form of communication to share an assessment about someone. When gossiping, you evaluate someone and want others to know what you think about that person. Consequently, gossip can be positive or negative. Positive gossip is a form of social support. It happens when praising someone’s work or behavior or sharing their achievement. For example, when a co-worker describes a colleague's achievement, she engages in positive gossip. In this way, gossip is positive and a form of sponsorship. Negative gossip is a form of victimization or scapegoating. More about these two forms of gossip later.
Thirdly, gossiping is not an activity required by management (formal activity), but it is an informal activity. This is meant by the term informal in the definition. You are not required to talk about others behind their backs. It happens voluntarily (excluding instances of peer pressure). This is why management usually doesn’t like gossip: It undermines their authority as information is spread outside "official communication channels and purpose." The argument is that gossiping is a way for lower-level staff to show their power. This argument seems to originate from research on politics. In authoritarian governments, gossiping (i.e., sharing information without the proper authorization) is a way to reduce decision-makers' power. That's why gossip is also called a "verbal Molotow cocktail". However, this view on gossip only makes sense if all gossip is perceived as unfavorable.
Who gossips about whom?
When answering the question of who gossips about whom, research doesn’t provide a straightforward answer. In other words: It depends.
Several aspects are influencing the relationships between gossiper and object of gossip: type of gossip (positive vs. negative), the status of both parties (lower-level vs. higher-level), workflow (same vs. different group), friendship. Please keep in mind that I'm not advocating that this is how you should be gossiping, but that, given current research, this is how gossip is happening.
Principle 1: Talk positively about those you depend on.
This principle is based on the idea that if you talk positively about someone you are dependent on, you show that you support this person. You voluntarily decide to tell others about their outstanding work and achievements. Consequently, the reputation of the person you are gossiping about increases. This increase in reputation positively reflects on you. Now you are working with an outstanding team member, and your team is doing great work. Therefore, you are also doing great work (as you are part of the same team). In this way, your status increases thanks to positive gossip.
Principle 2: Talk negatively about those you don't trust or those who are dependable.
When talking negatively about someone, you are either trying to find a scapegoat or warn others about a 'bad apple'. If whatever negative information you are sharing about a team member is seen as a warning and helping the greater good of the team, then negative gossip is seen as good by others.
But sharing negative information about someone is risky. People don’t like it if others discuss their lousy behavior. For this reason, lower-level employees are more often the object of negative gossip compared to higher-ups. It can be risky to talk negatively about your manager, as your manager has the power to punish you for spreading negative gossip about them. But there is hardly any repercussion when talking bad about someone with less status. By sharing negative information about a low-status employee, people are monitoring behavior and, in a way, reporting when someone doesn’t follow the rules.
This second principle has one significant consequence:
Speaking up is extremely hard for those with low status. Think about front-line employees, new community members, people who look or think differently, outsiders. Just because of their status they may get less support.
This difference in status applies to hierarchy within a company and in communities, even loosely defined social media communities. Think before you post a negative comment about someone.
A note on the role of friendships
I just mentioned that negative gossip is riskier. The hurdle for sharing a negative story about someone is higher than a positive one. You don't want to get punished for whatever you said. For this reason, there needs to be more trust between people to share negative gossip.
This additional trust requirement for negative gossip explains why negative gossip is often shared between friends. Two people who only work with each other, but do not develop a friendship, will be reluctant to share negative gossip and keep to positive gossip. Once a deeper level of trust forms, people are ready to share sensitive negative information.
Taking the finding on friendship one step further: The more cohesive a friendship group, the more negative gossip will be shared. In a cohesive friendship group, everyone is friends with everyone else.
Finally, the more central someone is in a (friendship) group, the more positive gossip is spread about that person and the less negative gossip. That's related to the idea of social status and based on the following reasoning: If I talk good about someone influential, people will like me because I praise an important person (ignoring right now tabloid news and stories about famous people).
If you use social media, just think about it: You are more likely to respond positively to a post from someone who has a huge following compared to someone who has a small following (unless, of course, you are contrarian or like a fight).
What are the consequences of gossiping?
The research provides fewer insights on the consequences of gossiping (see Notes for a collection of articles). The relationship between sharing positive or negative gossip and supervisor-rated performance or co-worker-rated influence isn't clear-cut.
There is hardly any association between the amount of gossiping someone does - be it negative or positive - and supervisor-rated performance. This means how your supervisor judges your performance does not change regardless of how much you gossip. This is not an invitation to gossip all day. You also need to get some work done.
But, the more you gossip, the more influential you are seen by other co-workers. Someone who gossips more frequently (either positive or negative gossip) is perceived to have more influence. This finding could be traced back to the informal nature of gossip. If you gossip, you know something other people don't know. It's like you have insider knowledge. And that insider knowledge makes you look influential.
Under what condition is gossiping good?
Going back to the original question, under what condition is gossiping good, gossiping is, of course, good if you share accurate and positive comments about other people. In addition, it is also good if you use negative gossip to warn other people about someone else. However, be sure that the object of this negative gossip isn't someone with a lower status simply because it is easier to gossip about them than about your boss. If you want to be on the safe side, don't share negative information about co-workers with a lower status.
How to measure the origin and impact of gossip?
In the deep dive, I provide three ways to measure the origin and impact of gossip using social network metrics.
Ellwardt, L., Wittek, R., & Wielers, R. (2012). Talking About the Boss: Effects of Generalized and Interpersonal Trust on Workplace Gossip. Group & Organization Management, 37(4), 521–549. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601112450607
Grosser, T. J., Lopez-Kidwell, V., & Labianca, G. (2010). A Social Network Analysis of Positive and Negative Gossip in Organizational Life. Group & Organization Management, 35(2), 177–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601109360391