For the average person, hearing about the existence of gossip in the workplace might invoke the feeling that a deviant behavior is causing a toxic work environment. Even for many managers, the immediate temptation would be to “squash the gossip,” but is that really the most appropriate response? According to an article published in April 2020 by Steven Lee and Christopher Barnes of Washington University, there could be quite a bit more to it than that. In fact, according to one of their sources, gossip is estimated to occur in two thirds of all workplace conversations (Dunbar, 2004). In other words, it is inevitable. Lee and Barnes explored the effect of workplace gossip not only for the target and recipient of the information, but for its “sender” (or source) as well. Their work could be used by management at any level to better understand when gossip is appropriate and healthy compared to when it is toxic and warrants addressing. Ultimately, they found that the result of the gossip depends largely on its context, along with the perceived intent and credibility of the gossip sender.
Lee and Barnes defined gossip as either positive or negative talk evaluating an absent third party. They focused specifically on non-solicited gossip. Gossip is distinct from rumor because it must involve other people and must not be speculative. Common negative results of gossip are well-known, and result from an intent to exact revenge, undermine authority, socially exclude individuals, or damage a particular community. Gossip of this sort can result in isolation, degradation of culture, damage to the credibility of the gossip sender or target, and more. Lesser known (or, at least, more infrequently acknowledged) results of gossip include the following positive effects: the spread of useful information, exposure of non-contributing employees, progression toward consensus, establishment of credibility and cooperation, reinforcement of social norms and expectations, and revealing discrimination in the workplace. One interesting note that the researchers posited is that it doesn’t matter so much what the intent of the senderis, what’s more important and consequential is how the recipient perceives the sender’s motivation. In other words, the ability to communicate the intent is just as important as the intent itself.
To further analyze the important effects of what is now acknowledged as an inevitable workplace occurrence, Lee and Barnes broke gossip down into four types: protection-based gossip (which alerts the group to threats or norm violations), derogation-based gossip (which negatively effects the reputation of the target), endorsement-based gossip (which positively effects the target reputation), and communion-based gossip (which strengthens social ties within the group without pertaining to the workplace). They also broke the motives of the gossip sender into three categories – self-interested motives, relational motives, and collective or prosocial motives. Combined with the perceived credibility and intent of the sender, these types of gossip and categories of motivation comprise an equation that can help predict the recipients’ response, which would either be to reciprocate and cooperate with the gossip sender, or to undermine them and work an alternative strategy.
While this article represented an extremely technical look at workplace gossip, its application is actually simpler than one might anticipate based on the depth of the research. Ultimately, the research showed that establishing a positive reputation within the workplace requires credibility (accuracy of information), selflessness, vulnerability, and focusing on the betterment of contributing team (or group) members and the betterment of the team as a whole. When sender credibility is doubted, recipients suspect ulterior motives and often undermine or distance themselves from the sender. Additionally, it isn’t just one circumstance that enhances or destroys credibility, it is an analysis of individual patterns of gossip behavior over time. In other words, sustained effort and selflessness allow team members to be perceived as positive contributors in the eyes of their peers and coworkers.
There are a number of other factors covered in the research, such as the status of the target of gossip. When the target holds a higher ranked position than the gossip sender in the organization, the gossip isn’t perceived as a threat to the target, and therefore can provide a healthy mechanism for building trust amongst peer coworkers and for venting about issues with management. Negative gossip about a lower status target is perceived as threatening to the target, so unless it’s extremely well founded, it’s unlikely to be reciprocated and could result in the ostracization of the gossip sender.
Another factor is the locus of control – whether it’s internal (and thus, reflects the sender’s character), or external (and represents a response to environmental pressures such as impending layoffs or a sudden firing of an employee). This speaks once more to the pattern analysis mentioned previously: if you choose your battles when it comes to gossip, and do so effectively and selflessly, you will maintain a positive reputation amongst your coworkers.
Since gossip allegedly occurs in two thirds of workplace conversations, in a larger sense, we are simply exploring workplace communication and how to foster a healthy work culture. It’s an important leadership topic, and understanding the positive and negative outcomes of gossip, along with how to strategically use this form of communication in team building, can help managers to maintain a positive reputation amongst their staff and coworkers, as well as helping them develop the next generation of managers. For aspiring organizational psychologists, an understanding of workplace gossip can help them to identify toxicity within organizations, and to discover the source of the toxicity and how best to remedy it. The fact is that, concerning social topics such as workplace gossip, there’s really nothing more relevant to our experience as humans, both in the workplace and outside of it. While not everyone needs to write about such topics at the graduate school level and beyond, having a basic understanding of the research not only makes us better employees, leaders, and psychologists, it also makes us better human beings in general.
Lee SH, Barnes CM (2020 Apr 16). An attributional process model of workplace gossip. American Psychological Association. 106(2):300-316. doi: 10.1037/apl0000504.