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The upside of workplace gossip
29 April 2012
Ah, the office gossip. Every workplace has one but in reality, no matter who begins a rumour, there are plenty of those that listen and spread the word. How many of us have “turned the other cheek” in terms of listening? Or kept quiet about what we’ve heard? Gossiping is in fact, human nature.
In prehistoric times, gossip helped us to find mates and food, gain status and learn of countless other scoops related to survival. Psychology professor Frank McAndrew says, “Those who weren’t good at gossip were eventually weeded out. Those of us on this planet are descended from people who were good at it. It’s hardwired in us.”
The UAE workers gossip with colleagues, chat in social networking sites or spend time making tea to the tune of what constitutes 46 added personal days every year reports a survey by The Office Exhibition.
Plenty has been written about how gossip can damage the work environment, destroy trust and lower morale and productivity.
Gossiping requires countless re-starts and refocusing on work, wasting valuable time. Gossip decreases morale and increases conflict in organisations: relationships become strained because gossip erodes trust and increases back-stabbing and fear of company downturns.
The University of Virginia Health System reports that gossip increases anxiety in the workplace because no one is clear about what is true or not. It causes people to choose sides and divides employees. It can target specific people, deeply damaging feelings and reputations. Gossiping is also seen as unprofessional and can hurt one’s career and chase away good employees. Gossip can become the basis of defamation or harassment lawsuits.
Gossip can be about specific people and their personal issues or about company changes, mergers, layoffs and promotions. Whenever there is an information gap or lack of clarity, ugly rumors will arise. Almost 75 per cent of workers say that most gossip centres around company news. Twenty-eight per cent of office employees say that gossip is often their first source of information.
Most gossiping doesn’t occur at the water cooler either. Thirty-six per cent of workplace gossip takes place in the break room; 33 per cent occurs at a colleague’s desk or workstation; and 10 per cent of gossip travels via email or instant messaging. The use of Internet blogs and social networks means that gossip can spread faster and farther than ever before.
But some researchers believe that gossip can be a useful. Indiana University researchers say the rumor mill can tell us a lot about workplace politics and power. Gossip is a way people connect with others, building camaraderie, relationships and trust: gossip can build friendships and teams. It’s also a way employees learn about the unwritten social norms and policies that exist in any company culture. Managers can use gossip to learn about employee morale, productivity problems or conflicts that need to be addressed and even spread good news via that route.
Rumour psychologist Nick DiFonzo says that office rumours are often accurate and crazily enough, increase in accuracy over time as they spread. He also says that a quick response can quell a rumor: by either admitting the truth of the matter or clearing up confusion. “Rumors are a natural part of social networks,” DiFonzo says, and they can be both negative and positive.
As far as policy? You can put something in your handbook but employees can’t legally be banned from discussing work-related matters. Business leaders can replace gossip with facts by opening communication lines, leaving little to guesswork and by working on building teamwork culture.
The author is an executive coach and HR training and development expert. She can be reached at oksana@academia ofhumanpotential.com or www.academiaofhumanpotential.com
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