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The surprising upsides of workplace gossip

08:00am March 16 2022

While malicious gossip has a corrosive effect, research shows positive or neutral gossip among colleagues can be unexpectedly productive. (Getty)

Gossip gets a bad rap, and often rightly so.

Talking about people who aren’t present can seem inherently unfair, and in the workplace, it could be regarded as petty and unprofessional.

But while malicious gossip will always have a corrosive impact, new studies are discovering some surprising upsides to workplace gossip, provided it is positive or neutral (for example, revealing to a colleague that another team member is moving to the other side of the city.) 

Sharing privileged information about others is a deeply human tendency, says social psychologist at the University of Melbourne, Professor Brock Bastian. He notes it isn’t something to feel guilty about unless the intention is to hurt someone else by damaging their reputation, career or status.

“Humans have a very strong need to belong,” explains Bastian. “Gossip is essentially social. Sharing privileged information about another person can be a way of creating a connection and establishing trust.”

Professor Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne. (Supplied)

A study in the Open Journal of Medical Psychology described neutral and positive gossip as helping people feel closer to each other at work, and raising levels of trust and morale. Research from Stanford and Berkeley has shown that gossip can help build group cohesion and cooperation.

“I think the biggest misconception is that gossip is always this negative cattiness – talking badly about somebody behind their backs,” Shannon Taylor, a professor of management at the University of Central Florida, told the BBC.

“But surveys suggest that the primary reason people do it is because they really just want to make sense of their environment.” 

Gossiping can help identify which colleagues are trustworthy and those who require a degree of caution. It can also mark the parametres of acceptable behaviour within an organisation. For example, if a colleague comments on how another person takes multiple sick days, it signals that such behaviour is perceived negatively.

Some forms of negative gossip may have a protective function, as Bastian explains. 

“Studies have shown that some people with tendencies towards altruism and fairness may gossip with the intent to protect others. They may say, ‘John is not a nice man. And I want you to know that because I don't want you to get hurt as I did.’” 

During times of uncertainty, such as during the pandemic, gossiping may be a useful defence mechanism to manage anxiety, says Dr Frank Chow, a psychiatrist and the director and at 2OP Health, which specialises in work-related mental health care. 

“Despite working remotely, we are inclined to gossip more during the pandemic, because it has deprived us of our connections with others. Gossip allows others to bond,” says Dr Chow.

He believes that technology has facilitated gossip amongst colleagues, with such conversations migrating from the water cooler and tea-room to virtual meetings and instant messaging channels.

Dr Frank Chow, a psychiatrist and the director and at 2OP Health. (Supplied) 

Prior to the pandemic, a study published by the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that the average person spends 52 minutes a day talking about others. The same study found that only 15 per cent of the recorded conversations were in some way critical.

In a survey of 22,000 respondents across 100 countries, Australians were found to be more inclined to discuss personal details at work than the average global citizen. Forty-four per cent of Australians talked about their partners at work, compared to the global average of 32 per cent, according to the survey by global workplace provider Regus. Other popular topics included holiday plans, anecdotes about pets and children, stories from a previous job, and diet and exercise tips.

If gossip takes a negative turn, the best thing to do is nip it in the bud, says Bastian.

“If you start to feel uneasy with a conversation you're being drawn into, it's best just to be clear with them and say, ‘I'm not comfortable with this conversation.’ And I think you should check yourself if you are using information as a way of leveraging your own social value at the expense of others.” 

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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