For many years as a Change and HR specialist, my experience has been that, more often than not, office gossip can be counter-productive, even harmful, and that if it exists as part of your organisational culture, HR practitioners and managers should work to change that culture. Certainly much of the traditional research and guidance for HR and corporate communication practitioners suggests that we must work to minimise and even stamp out gossip in the workplace.
Some organisations spend a great deal of time and energy on strategies and policies to do just that, even going so far as to include an agreement not to engage in gossip in employment contracts.
However, recent research from the US suggests that it could do more good than harm. My initial reaction to this research was sceptical, however on more detailed review, there may actually be some merit in the suggestion.
Understanding why we Gossip
Let’s consider firstly why we engage in gossip and, let’s be honest, there would be very few of us who would be able to say we’ve never done so. We engage in gossip because:
- We are driven to understand and make sense of the world around us and the environment in which we find ourselves every day.
- We are social creatures, so being part of a social network is incredibly important. In this way, sharing gossip enhances our social status because people want to share with us.
- We like to be ‘in the know’ and it is one of the most common ways to gain information.
- We like to be ‘inside the tent’, a phrase one of my colleagues once used when she was struggling in the workplace. I remember her saying, “you’re inside the tent with access to all of the information you need, imagine for a second what it’s like being outside the tent”.
- Finally, it’s a mechanism for people to ‘blow-off steam’, an emotional release valve for stress, anger and frustration in the workplace that can help us maintain our resilience.
Fulfilling Psychological and Social Needs
You can see why it’s so common in workplaces – psychologically it fulfils a number of our human needs. According to Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Knox College in the US, and gossip researcher and presenter, gossip is a more complicated and socially important phenomenon than we often give it credit for. After looking more deeply into the psychological drivers for gossip, I tend to agree. Wert and Salvoy, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Yale University, examine gossip from a social comparison perspective and conclude that it is purposeful and perhaps even necessary for healthy social functioning.
A Harvard Business review article says that engaging in gossip is an effective way of achieving the above goals in an unhealthy social system. People engage in gossip when they lack trust or efficacy. In this way, a culture that condones office gossip may be enabling passive-aggressive behaviour that discourages people from addressing their real issues with those who can and should be able to support them.
But surely it’s only unhealthy if it’s used maliciously, impacts significantly on productivity and/or is the only source of accurate, honest and relevant information that employees have access to.
Use Gossip for Good
Therefore, rather than trying to stamp it out, like some organisations do, why don’t we use it to our advantage. Acknowledge that people will engage in gossip regardless, that is part of human nature and it will always fulfil needs that other communication mechanisms will not. Use it as a force for good, rather than evil. Incorporate it into your communications strategies, provide forums to legitimise office gossip, with the proviso that it is about meaningful topis that do not have the potential to harm organisational or individual reputations – encourage the positive stuff.
How can organisations do this? Social media provides the perfect platform, starting legitimate discussions on social media or local discussion boards about organisational initiatives, upcoming change and relevant organisational issues that impact on employees. For example, we worked with one of our clients on a recent change management program that introduced a new information management system, which had quite a substantial impact on the working environment for all employees. As part of the communication strategy, we humanised the system with a name (SIMON), which also served as an acronym for the system, then created interest and speculation through the use of website messaging and starting discussions about when and how SIMON would ‘show up’, what he would bring with him and how he’d change the employment experience. This created what I like to call ‘friendly gossip’ about the upcoming change.
The other fundamental is to ensure that employees have other sources for honest and accurate information. There are organisations like Google who have taken this to a new level with their ‘Default to Open’ policy on information sharing. They start from the position that access to information at Google for all employees should be the default, then if there is a risk identified in sharing specific information, consider how it should be treated, this being the exception, rather than the norm. A demonstration of this policy in practice is the regular Q&A sessions conducted by the founders that all staff can attend and where no topics are off limits. Google started this practice way back in the day, when they had only a handful of employees, (now tens of thousands) but the meetings still continue.
The degree to which Google goes may not be feasible for all organisations, however it provides a benchmark that we should all strive to implement in some form.
Finally, a note for CEOs and People & Culture Managers, make it your business to know what’s going on in your business and the conversations that are front-of-mind for your staff. If you encounter gossip about particular issues and hot topics, address these with the facts via either forums like the above or through discussion boards/social media. This way you can both legitimise and steer the conversations in the right direction.
Dealing with Destructive Gossip
I’m not suggesting that you enable or support negative and destructive gossip – this you need to actively monitor at a local level, discourage and stop.
- Deal with rumours that are untrue immediately and provide accurate information.
- Set a good example – when someone comes to you with destructive gossip, refuse to engage and suggest they speak to they seek accurate information or stop talking!!
- Regularly audit your own gossip and rumour behaviour and encourage your team to do the same.