WORKPLACE / NOV. 26, 2014
version 2, draft 2

When Workplace Gossip is a Good Thing

It’s probably easy to believe that gossip is a bad thing in any organisation.  It might encourage bullying for example.  It can also play a positive role however, especially in promoting a culture of transparency, which is of course so important to any organisation.

This was highlighted by a recent study from a team of academics at Stanford University.  The paper revealed that gossip can actually perform a couple of invaluable functions in any organisation:

  1. it can help to reform miscreants
  2. it can help to encourage cooperation

“Groups that allow their members to gossip,” the researchers say, “sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members.

“While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”

The positive side of gossip

The research saw participants asked to complete a number of tasks that would theoretically benefit their group.  The participants were then instructed to undertake a second task in a new group.  Before they began however, they were given some time to gossip about their former team mates.  Their new colleagues could then take advantage of this new information to ostracize people they thought would not be good team mates.

The paper revealed that this gossip provided a useful feedback mechanism for the teams it was permitted in.

“By removing defectors, more cooperative individuals can more freely invest in the public good without fear of exploitation,” the researchers declared.

How gossip discourages bad behaviour

That’s a useful return in its own right, but the paper also revealed that the presence of gossip within a group is often enough to discourage bad behaviour from forming, and to prompt those who behaved badly to mend their ways.

“Those who do not reform their behavior,” the researchers say, “behaving selfishly despite the risk of gossip and ostracism, tended to be targeted by other group members who took pains to tell future group members about the person’s untrustworthy behavior.

“These future groups could then detect and exclude more selfish individuals, ensuring they could avoid being taken advantage of.”

This risk of being ostracized was shown to deter selfish behaviours from forming within the group.  It even emerged that when someone had previously been ostracized, they doubled their efforts when allowed back into the group.

It was this risk to our reputation therefore that provided the incentive to behave in a good way, so that this reputation is enhanced and good things are said about us within the group.

It’s a fascinating finding, because we traditionally associate gossip with the spreading of lies and falsehoods, but this research reminds us that it also involves spreading positive things too.

“Imagine a workplace,” the researchers conclude, “where an employee’s performance could only be seen by individuals in the immediate setting, and those individuals could not pass on what they had seen to other co-workers or supervisors…Further, imagine a work setting where managers could not fire delinquent employees. It would be hard to deter workers from cutting corners ethically or freeloading, working only when they were directly supervised.”

Gossip as information sharing

Of course, you could easily argue that one man’s gossip is another man’s sharing of knowledge.  Regardless of how you frame things however, the spread of information in this way is a fundamental part of who we are as a species.  It’s in our nature to pass on information about those we come into contact with, whether in the workplace, the school, on the Internet or the numerous other places we bump into other people through.

Whilst gossip can be malicious and negative to group dynamics, this study reminds us that it can also have many positive attributes.

Image: Idiva

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