Gossip, especially gossip at work, is generally considered a bad thing. While it’s hard to deny that few catty words shared at the water cooler can give us a boost, casting aspersions on colleagues is hardly considered promotion-worthy behaviour. But attitudes might just be changing. A growing number of health professionals and academics have reported that gossip isn’t such a terrible thing—in fact in many instances it can have a positive impact on health, success and even team cohesion at work.
Dr Bianca Beersma and Professor Gerben Van Kleef, researchers at the Department of Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of Amsterdam found that gossip serves as a kind of “social cement” and that organisations can “benefit from gossip that is instigated for positive reasons”.
The team of researchers who work with Dr Beersma and Professor Van Kleef on this ongoing study found that as much as two-thirds of our conversation is gossip, but it is not necessarily nasty. Instead, the study found that gossip is used to warn colleagues about workmates who are not pulling their weight or should not be trusted. Fear of gossip can also ensure that lazy workers fall into line and do their bit. “The threat of gossip seems to function as social pressure that motivates group members to ‘stay in line’ and behave in accordance with what they think their group members want them to do”, said Dr Beersma of the research.
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of California supports these findings, and argues that “good” gossip is necessary for the good of humanity. “A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects,” said Dr Robb Willer, co-author of The Virtues of Gossip. Dr Willer refers to good gossip as “prosocial” gossip. This is gossip that is well intentioned and aims to arm the recipient with information that will make their life easier. The researchers observed 399 participants playing an online game with a $50 prize that required players to cooperate with other individuals to win the prize. The threat of gossip impelled people to play more generously.“We find that those who engage in this form of gossip are generally driven by sincere desires to help others,” said Dr Willer, noting that it also eased frustration and made people feel better. “More generous people are more likely to engage in this form of gossip.”
Gossip has always had bad rep. Dr Beersma points to accounts of severe punishments for gossip in the Middle Ages, when individuals guilty of indulging in a surreptitious chinwag were condemned to wear iron masks with spikes that protruded into the mouth. She also suggests that when women were burned for engaging in witchcraft, it often had less to do with their allegiance to the supernatural and more to do with their love of gossiping. Fortunately today’s workplace punishments are a little less severe, but those bosses keen to banish gossip at work might want to think again.
These are the reason you should get gossiping right now…