As a first reaction, office gossip may be looked down upon by the management. However, there is a view that it may not be altogether bad for the organisation. Various researches have pointed out that office gossip forges connections, builds trust, helps learning unwritten social norms and offers a way of comparing ourselves with others.
Frank McAndrew, Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois has done extensive research on gossip. He believes that gossip is not a character flaw, but rather a social skill that evolved to help our ancestors become socially successful. He says, “Think of gossip less like there are people who gossip and people who don’t. There are people who are good gossipers and people who aren’t.”
Its origins can be traced to prehistoric times, when people lived in small groups and success in those groups depended on getting the scoop on your neighbours. “Those who weren’t good at gossip were eventually weeded out,” he says. “Those of us on this planet are descended from people who were good at it. It’s hardwired in us.”
At the office, gossip creates a feeling of camaraderie. “If someone shares gossip with you, it bonds you together,” says McAndrew. “It creates trust. If you’re not in the loop, you feel ostracized.”
A few years back, Timothy Hallet, Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University conducted a two-year study of workplace politics at an urban elementary school. He found that gossip in the workplace can be a weapon in reputational warfare or a gift. Gossip can also offer clues to power and influence not found on organizational charts. With the help of videos, the study could find gossip unfolding even in formal meetings. He says, “If you’re attentive, you can see who has the informal status, which isn’t on the formal charts. It can help you understand how work actually gets done.” According to Donna Eder, Hallett’s colleague and co-author of a paper on adult gossip, “In the work setting, gossip can be a tool of the oppressed.” It serves as an outlet for frustrated employees.
Another study conducted by psychologists at University of California, Berkley found that engaging in behind-the-back talk actually had meaningful social benefits. It lowered gossipers’ stress, prevented exploitation and promoted more generous behaviour. Social psychologist Robb Willer, who co-authored the study, says, “A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects.”
An article by reporter Kevin Fogarty in Computerworld states that if you want to boost the productivity, improve job satisfaction and add to the creativity of knowledge workers while spending almost nothing, encourage them to hang out together and gossip. He quotes a 2010 study at a call centre which showed that letting work-friends go on break together increased the productivity of the whole group by 20 per cent, reduced stress levels by the same amount and reduced turnover by more than two thirds.
With the advent of technology and rise of social sites, gossip in the modern day office is also changing. Instead of the earlier water-cooler gossip, in the present day gossip can go on even without the employees coming together and all through the day. Just how much of it is productive and useful is the million dollar question.