Workplace gossip and rumormongering have long been seen as a necessary evil of group collaboration. After all, humans have sequestered themselves into “in” groups and “out” groups for all of recorded history. But not all gossip is bad! An insightful article in Fast Company makes the case that office gossip can actually be a sign of a healthy workplace.
In Blueprint’s latest look at how Covid-19 has reshaped the workplace, we’re exploring the potential value of office gossip to build camaraderie for teams, whether they are working in the office or remotely.
Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career, argues that office gossip can bring teammates together:
“When we celebrate other people’s successes and positive life events, we are bringing our community together. When we let team members know about a sad experience in the life of a colleague, it can create outpourings of sympathy and attempts to help.”
“These are quite positive uses of gossip that can improve the overall sense of community.”
Not all gossip is created equal! Markman sees the most cultural value in office gossip that either helps us get to know who our colleagues are outside of work or helps us share in their joys.
This so-called positive office gossip has two benefits: getting our attention and helping us bond.
“Gossip comes in a couple of forms. Sometimes, we focus on information about the personal lives of other people—their relationships, struggles, successes, and life events. Most people find this kind of gossip endlessly fascinating. As a social species, our cognitive systems are set up to seek information about the people in our network.”
Good gossip is like the perfect dessert tray: it draws a crowd in the best possible way.
“This kind of gossip can bring people together or it can create factions,” Markman said. “When we celebrate other people’s successes and positive life events, we are bringing our community together.”
Another type of positive gossip is letting other colleagues know when one of your teammates has suffered a loss or setback generally in their personal life.
“When we let team members know about a sad experience in the life of a colleague, it can create outpourings of sympathy and attempts to help. These are quite positive uses of gossip that can improve the overall sense of community.”
There’s nothing sinister about congratulating your colleague about their new baby or offering sympathy after the death of a loved one. That said, plenty of office gossip is damaging.
Markman cautions against tidbits that single out or negatively portray a team member.
“Stories that focus on presenting a colleague in a bad light can undermine a sense of camaraderie. Talking about a failure a colleague has experienced with the intent of sharing a little schadenfreude reinforces a sense of “us versus them.”
Another type of bad gossip involves spreading privileged or unconfirmed negative information about the company itself, for example, that layoffs are looming:
“The other type of gossip involves news and rumors about professional things happening in the office. This gossip is fascinating for a different reason. The future is always uncertain to some degree, and uncertainty provokes anxiety. Any time you have information that helps you better predict the future, it can reduce that stress (though if the gossip predicts problems in the future, that can create a different kind of anxiety).”
Finally, Markman maintains that it’s also important to crack down on office gossip that is quite simply untrue:
“Remember, however, that rumors are unconfirmed tidbits. Despite the old adage “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” (which suggests that there is always a kernel of truth in any rumor), just because lots of people are sharing some gossip doesn’t mean that it has any validity.”
So how can you accentuate the positive office gossip and eliminate – or at least reduce? – the negative?
Team members should use online communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to share congratulations and words of sympathy.
Happy hours or team meetings are also ideal times to spread good-vibes gossip and share in colleagues’ wins, whether personal or professional.
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