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Gossip and Why You Should Pay Attention To It

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Your organisation is riddled with gossip - along with every other one in the world! The giving and receiving of information about others is something that defines us as humans. It turns out that it's not all bad too, despite the connotations the term tends to conjure. Read on for more ...

The Tapestry of Talk: Gossip’s Role in Shaping Organisations’ Ability to Perform

The chatter of gossip, often dismissed as trivial, runs like an undercurrent through the rivers of organisational communication – all organisations, all communications (convince me otherwise!). In this blog I take a peek into the enigmatic world of gossip, illuminating its complex role in shaping both individual and corporate reputations within an organisation. As humans we are unique in our ability to gossip with the intent of learning or sharing something about someone.  

Defining Gossip in the Organisational Context:

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll define gossip as the exchange of information between two or more people (most often it turns out to be just two), typically face to face, sharing information, observations, and judgments about named third parties not present.

The two Faces of Gossip:

Gossip’s influence within organizations is a matter of balance: it has the potential to build bridges or walls, to create or destroy, to uplift or undermine. One thing for sure – ignore it at your peril as a leader.  It can help you or write you off and you can and do influence that probably on a daily basis.  Structured properly you may even want some gossip to help mould and shape company narratives and personas, inform culture, recognise behavioural norms, and even catalyse change. 

Why do we gossip?

Gossip is a universal human behaviour, one deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Whilst the great apes do not gossip, they spend a significant amount of their waking hours observing and learning about their social groups which tells them a lot about their social situation – gossip without language?  People gossip for several reasons. Firstly, gossip is a tool for social bonding. Sharing information about others can foster connections and build trust between the gossipers. If we gossip with a colleague, we are endowed them with what we probably believe is valuable.  Whether it is or not is a whole different story, but often we want to give and gossiping is one way to do this. 

Secondly, it can also serve as a form of indirect aggression, a way to harm others’ reputations without direct confrontation. Whilst this is increasingly high risk in today’s multimedia, digitally social and complex world, our desire for direct human to human communication is unlikely to be that affected despite many assertions to the contrary.  The advent of the printing press was alleged to be the thing to destroy communication as has every communication development since – but we still like to gossip!

Thirdly, gossiping can elevate an individual’s social status by demonstrating access to valuable information (Emler, 1994).  Sharing “valuable” information whether personal, private, commercially valuable, or even state secrets all feed our desire to have value and be liked.  

 

Lastly, it serves as an informal learning mechanism, where people can learn about social norms, expectations, and consequences of behaviours without directly experiencing them. Often people want to understand something about someone and would rather ask a thord party than the person directly.  Despite its potential drawbacks, gossip serves essential social and psychological functions, helping individuals navigate complex social environments within organisations.

Positive Impacts of Gossip:

Fosters Connection and Cohesion: Gossip can act as the invisible thread that binds individuals together, creating a sense of shared identity and group cohesion (Robbins and Karan, 2018).

Promotes Informal Learning: As an informal yet vital channel for sharing information, gossip facilitates “underground” organisational learning, providing insights into the cultural and political dynamics of the workplace (Begemann et al., 2018).

Regulates Behaviour: Gossip, when harnessed effectively, can deter negative behaviour and promote organisational norms. Fear of negative reputational outcomes can keep individuals’ actions in check (Emler, 1994).

Negative Impacts of Gossip:

Breeds Mistrust: Gossip has the potential to create an environment of suspicion, potentially damaging relationships and fostering a culture of uncertainty.

Instigates Conflict: Negative or controversial gossip can ignite disputes within teams or between individuals (Greenslade-Yates, 2017).

Poses Reputational Risk: Damaging gossip can have a lasting impact on a person’s or an organisation’s reputation (Cruz, 2012). Misinformation can lead to lasting negative perceptions that are hard to rectify.

Gossip and the Weaving of Organisational “Stories”:

Gossip serves as a storytelling mechanism, circulating tales of triumph, downfall, scandal, and redemption that collectively form an organisation’s narrative. This narrative, shaped significantly by gossip, can define the reputation of an organisation in the eyes of both its internal and external stakeholders (Waddington, 2015).

Gossip’s Impact on Reputations:

Reputation, built on the shared beliefs and evaluations about an entity’s character, can be profoundly influenced by gossip.  Gossip is arguably the single biggest influence in building and destroying reputations.  Your reputation is in large part made up by what people say about you when you’re not around – so its worth paying attention to.   Gossip plays a crucial role in either reinforcing or reshaping beliefs, thus contributing significantly to reputation management.

Case Study – The Power of Gossip:

Consider the case of a successful business I have worked with, where a rumour circulated about the CEO’s impending resignation and pregnancy. This gossip, originating from a private conversation between two employees, spread quickly through the organisation – typically being embellished each time it was passed on.  Soon, the rumour had grown arms and legs and was totally out of control. 

As anxiety grew, the CEO decided to address the gossip directly. In an open forum, she acknowledged the rumour, clarified that she was not resigning (or pregnant), and used the occasion to praise her team’s dedication and reiterate her commitment to the company’s mission. It also opened discussions about succession planning and aired several other topics known to the subject of gossip.  

In this case, the gossip, initially destabilising, was turned into a positive rallying point for the organisation, reaffirming shared goals and strengthening team cohesion.

Gossip, often ignored or derided, is a force to be reckoned with in organisational dynamics. When properly managed, it can foster cohesion, facilitate learning, and serve as an effective tool in reputation management. Left unchecked, however, it can create an environment of mistrust, conflict, and reputational risk.

It is imperative for organisational leaders, especially CEOs, COOs, and HR Directors, to recognise and understand the influence of gossip. They can then strategically leverage its positive potential while curtailing its potential harm, transforming this seemingly insignificant aspect of communication into a powerful tool for shaping stronger, more resilient organisations. Any leader  who says “I do not listen to gossip” is probably underestimating its role, power, and their position to understand the organisation they lead.

 

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