This got me thinking, what’s the difference between office gossip and internal communication? Although the term ‘gossip’ has a bad reputation, it actually has a very important role in workplace communication (and society in general, for that matter).
We might not like to admit it, but it’s likely that we all engage in a bit of office gossip every now and then, if not on a daily basis! Research suggests that gossiping – loosely termed as “conversation about social and personal topics” – is human nature. Eminent Professor Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, goes so far as to describe gossip as “a fundamental prerequisite of the human condition”, arguing that without it we wouldn’t be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do1.
Why? Because we’re social animals. We use this type of conversation to form alliances, strengthen our social standing, and generally feel ‘safety in numbers’. Professor Dunbar’s fascinating work suggests that gossip is the human version of primate grooming. His research with primates revealed that the sense of obligation felt by baboons to come to one another’s rescue when under attack is generated through social grooming. Essentially, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours (and attempt to save you if we come under attack). So it makes sense that primates spend an awful lot of time picking each other’s fur; it could be a life saver!
Thankfully, the gift of language means that for us it’s more about chewing the fat than picking the fur… and it seems we also spend a considerable amount of time doing it. Evidence suggests that up to 67% of our conversation time is spent gossiping2. But if gossip is about forming alliances and promoting our social standing – surely it can become a divisive tool, creating an environment of ‘us and them’, ‘ingroup and outgroup’? Sounds like a HR Manager’s worst nightmare.
Fear not, despite the negative connotations surrounding the word ‘gossip’, research shows that in reality, it’s used mostly for innocuous or even positive means. The most common reasons for people engaging in these conversations are:
To convey, receive, and validate social information
To enjoy themselves - rarely is it motivated by the intention of having a negative influence on others
Dr Roy Baumeister of Florida State University takes this one step further, demonstrating the importance of gossip for cultural learning, in other words how to get along in the environment you work in. Dr Baumeister and colleagues found that gossiping helps to supplement learning, going beyond what you can personally observe, allowing you to learn from the triumphs and misadventures of people beyond your own immediate sphere3.
So given that the human brain craves certainty, it’s natural and inevitable to find people in the workplace talking to one another to try to make sense of what’s going on, and how they should behave. These informal sense-making conversations play a pivotal role in organisational communication. Leaders sometimes overlook this though, focusing solely on the formal presentations and speeches when conveying important messages. But it’s through these informal conversations, the whispers around the coffee machine, the hushed voices in the corridor, that people make sense of what’s going on, ‘what does this mean for me, for my role, for my team?’, and this is how they’ll remember it. These are the stories that stick. They create the ‘organisational reality’ for people, so it’s important that managers and leaders attempt to engage with and shape these conversations where possible. Ensure they are grounded in the facts, and that people aren’t jumping to conclusions or making false assumptions.
The bottom line is, to gossip is human, so leaders and managers must connect with the informal chatter, and attempt to nudge conversation in a positive direction by providing facts about what’s going on in the organisation, and encouraging employees to reflect on ‘what does this mean for me?’
1Dunbar, R.I.M. (2004). Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective. Review of General Psychology, 8, 100–110.
2Dunbar, R.I., Marriott, A., & Duncan, N.D. (1997). Human conversational behavior. Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective, 8(3), 231-246.
3Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as cultural learning. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 111-121.