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This is when gossip can be healthy in the workplace

We know that talking about others can create toxicity (even if it feels cathartic in the moment). But this other sort of gossip can actually be useful.

This is when gossip can be healthy in the workplace
[Source illustration: calvindexter/Getty Images]

A sure way to get people around your office to perk up is to start a sentence with “So, I heard that . . .” What follows is generally some piece of gossip—essentially defined as conversation involving reports about other people. (These reports may be confirmed or unconfirmed. We can think of confirmed reports as “news” and unconfirmed reports as “rumors.”)

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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.

This kind of gossip can bring people together or it can create factions. 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.

Of course, not all gossip has this positive influence. 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.” In addition, spreading rumors you have heard about others can be a significant problem if those rumors turn out to be untrue. The simple rule is that if you wouldn’t want to tell the person to their face the personal information you’re sharing with other people, you probably shouldn’t spread it.

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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).

There is less danger in sharing both confirmed and unconfirmed gossip about the way the organization is functioning. Business involves a lot of strategic planning, and you cannot make plans without any sense of what is coming. It can be helpful to make some educated guesses about what is likely to happen in order to generate alternatives about what you might do. The rumor mill is one source of information for those guesses.

In addition, organizational gossip generally falls in the category of information that brings people together. The shared worldview you get from professional gossip allows everyone to work with a set of assumptions that can make it easier to have discussions about how to address upcoming challenges.

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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. As healthy as it can be to plan based on information you hear, don’t make any significant decisions until you have more certainty about what is to come.

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