Why Rumours Start At Work

A good gossip is one of those workplace rituals that I’m sure we’re all familiar with.  Most of the time, these are relatively benign affairs, with rumours filling the gaps where official communications are lacking.  Employees thus get their crystal ball out, spread what they’ve heard on the grapevine and try and collectively reach an understanding about the state of the company.

Of course, that’s not the sole source of gossip, and there is sadly a much more nefarious sort that tends to bubble under in many of our organisations.  This sort is often far from benign and often involves a particular person that the gossiper has fallen out with in some way, and payback comes in the form of vindictive gossip.

A new study set out to explore just what it was that prompted employees to spread rumours about colleagues.  It suggests that gossipers are typically going about their business in order to exact revenge on their colleague, whom they believe has slighted them in some way.

In an organisational context, this typically happens when an employee feels that their employer has not maintained their side of the bargain.  For instance, they may have been denied a fair crack at promotion, or a bonus opportunity may have been removed unfairly.  If an employee believes their employer has treated them unfairly in some way and broken that psychological contract, they are much more likely to start spreading rumours about the company.

A particularly common example found in the research was in reneging on specified promises regarding performance relating targets.  If the company upheld their promise and paid out the bonus, then it was incredibly rare for gossip to flourish.  If they didn’t however, woe betide them.

Why we gossip about peers

When it came to gossiping about our colleagues, the study suggested that the primary motivation was to get our own back on them after they had treated us unfairly in some way.  Whereas spreading rumours about ones employer typically required quite a strong sleight, when it came to gossiping about individuals, we are much more easily persuaded to do so, especially if we believe we can easily get away with doing so.

So how can such behaviour be stopped in its tracks?  The study suggests that management training is crucial, both to help leaders understand how rumours start and also to help them to identify the original sources of the gossip in the first place.  The paper also highlights the crucial role communication plays, and underlines the importance of strong communication from managers so that no misunderstandings can emerge.  Managers should talk frequently with their team to ensure that the message has been accurately received and preventing misunderstanding from spreading.

Companies should also be strong enough to own up to any mistakes that they make, especially when this results in employees feeling let down in some way.  Honesty is the recommended policy here, so if bonuses can’t be paid for some reason, it’s better to be candid and forthright with the reasons why rather than attempting to brush the situation under the carpet.

Last, but not least, managers should provide an easy conduit by which employees can vent their frustrations and concerns.  The authors suggest that it is often a lack of real voice that encourages people to whisper behind the backs of managers.  Providing appropriate channels can therefore be very effective in stopping this.

Image source: Wiseweek

Rumor As Revenge In The Workplace




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