Research finds gossip not all bad

By Becca Clemons

Research on gossip in the workplace, conducted within a branch of a U.S. company, found that gossiping at work isn’t such a bad thing.

Giuseppe “Joe” Labianca, Gatton Endowed Associate Professor of Management at UK’s LINKS Center for Research on Social Networks in Business and Gatton doctoral students in management Travis Grosser and Ginny Kidwell-Lopez published their findings in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, a UK press release said.

“Gossip can be very helpful to people in organizations, especially when the flow of information from the top gets choked off, as often happens when companies are in crisis or undergoing change,” Labianca said. “If a few people know what’s really going on, gossip becomes the means of spreading that information to everyone else.”

Labianca was conducting a different study within a company when he was told he “really needed to study the gossip networks in this place.”

According to the HBR article, surveys about social networking in the office were completed by 30 of the company’s 40 employees. The questionnaires allowed employees to list with whom they exchanged gossip. They then indicated whether the gossip was mostly positive, negative or a blend of the two, Grosser said.

Findings demonstrated that the more staff members gossiped, the better they understood their social environment and the higher their peers rated their influence.

“Gossip is merely the exchange of information between two people about a third, absent person,” Labianca said. “A huge amount of gossip is devoted to praise.”

He said that while 72 percent of the gossip relationships had a blend of positive and negative gossip, 21 percent had predominately positive gossip and just 7 percent had predominately negative.

When addressed with the claim that gossip generally spreads fear and anxiety, Labianca told HBR his results usually show the reverse.

“By sharing gossip, you make a personal connection, which gives you social and emotional support,” Labianca said. “Gossip also disseminates valuable information about a network … and provides a means for censuring those who don’t adhere to the group’s norms.”

“What’s more, research shows that gossip often reduces individuals’ anxiety and helps them cope with uncertainty,” Labianca added.

He said many managers assume gossip is negative and therefore give lower ratings to employees who gossip more.

Grosser said that negative gossip has more of a strong impact and is more salient, therefore it creates a bias among people that most gossip is negative.

It’s rare that you say negative things about others, Labianca said. “We expect that our interactions will be mainly positive.”

The findings show that supervisors had more gossip partners than non-supervisors did. Labianca said this is because managers need a lot of information to do their work.

“You can’t simply ban gossip,” Labianca said. “In our research, we find that 96 percent of employees admit to engaging in gossip at work.”

Gossip helps to maintain norms in the workplace, he said. Newcomers can learn the ropes about how things work, what’s appropriate and what’s not and what’s expected of them in a company.

Labianca also told HBR that gossip in the workplace isn’t unprofessional.

“When managers warn us not to be unprofessional, they’re really saying that when we show up for work, they expect us to leave behind the emotional and social parts of who we are. But we’re unable to leave our humanity at the door. We react to things emotionally, we form bonds with people, we gossip. To pretend otherwise makes things worse.”

Grosser said gossip promotes competition among employees and holds them up against their peers.

“Praise is a cheap way of keeping people committed to an organization,” he said.­­­