I’m not at all certain why gossip has acquired such a decidedly shady reputation. But before you send me off to Dante’s 8th Inferno, reserved solely for management and executive development consultants, let me explain my thinking. Two-thirds of all conversations, whether in business or otherwise, are about social relations. Most of which can be labeled gossip. Only a very small amount of that can be thought of as malicious. Indeed, the term gossip originally meant “godsibs,” what business people refer to as their peer group of friends. Gossip is typically the most useful information about an organization. It also comes equally from both men and women. So, I want to shine a significantly different light on all gossip, including “malicious” gossip.
First, some important conclusions: I soak up gossip like a monstrous sponge because it’s just damned useful stuff. It’s also utterly impossible to stop organizational gossip, so don’t waste your time trying. Actually, attempting to stop gossip is futile at best and destructive at worst. It’ll just go deeper underground. Furthermore, you’ll be very sorry if organizational gossip is no longer readily available.
Gossip and the big picture
Before we narrow in on gossip, it’s important to understand the stuff of communication in organizations and societies. The beginning place for all language is to understand that language evolved ...
So in a study from 2004, the anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, makes a strong and highly rhetorical case that language takes at least five forms in organizations. We use language for keeping track of others—and adding still more to our social network. We also use language in our highly complicated and complex organizations to seek advice or information: “What would you do if . . . ?” A third use is that of policing and controlling others who fail to keep the organization’s formal and informal agreements. [I’ll have more to say about that later on.] A fourth is that we can use language to advertise ourselves. “Check out all my wonderful qualities as a manager, or . . .” Related to the fourth is a fifth form. We can use language to deceive: to tell others what we think it would help us for them to know. [That usually goes under the rubric of politicking or “positioning.” Taken too far we call it brown nosing, or. . . . ]
Most big picture explanations of humans focus on nature and culture. Obviously, the role of language in organizations is cultural, focusing on how to live and work in our systems, whether they be family, educational, work, or any other. That’s why it’s key to learn how, as we grow into adulthood, to “work the systems” of importance to us. Those that fail in any system lack the understanding and tools of that system. That conclusion leads us directly to the role of gossip in the work system.
What is gossip?
No matter how we define the “stuff” of gossip, it usually takes the form of a conversational story. It’s a collaborative narrative about another person that encourages those in the conversation to elaborate and contribute. The conventional understanding that gossip is a negative, malicious statement about a person, though sometimes politically correct, is also naïve—and for a number of reasons.
For one thing, gossip tends to be shared with another for the purpose of bonding. It often sounds like, “I want to share some information with you that’s important.” The information shared will be about a third person, known to both the receiver and the sender. But the unstated subtexts are, “It’s more important for me to be standing here talking to you than being over there with [. . . anyone else],” and “I’d like to have a closer relationship with you.”
Robin Dunbar finds that gossip has at least two functions: To strengthen the bond between teller and hearer by spending time together, and to share information of mutual interest about another. Baumeister, Zhang and Vohs add significantly to this study by concluding that gossip adds valuable information about the organizational culture and relationships. These ideas stress strongly that gossip is social learning. Or as the study shows, gossip is observational learning of a cultural kind.
Gossip has a very important role in learning. A new employee, for example, may ask about his boss and find that his boss is one of those smart guys who can get ticked off really fast. So he learns from a few graphic narratives that if he goes to his boss about a complaint, he’d better take along a solution for that problem. Similarly, most parents rely on social information—gossip—to warn their little kids about playing in the street. They tell a story about a friend that got hit by a car for playing in the street. Intriguingly, sociologists have found that children start to gossip almost as soon as they can talk and see the importance of other people.
Gossip is also very significant for learning a culture’s implicit rules and regulations. One client of mine had a reputation for sleeping around, a reputation that I picked up from several interviews. That culture’s rules said rather clearly that, “We don’t trust people who sleep around.” But it added, “If you do it, don’t be dumb. Be smart enough to do it with someone outside the organization. Our organization doesn’t keep secrets and we don’t want that information shared. It messes up our network. So if you do it, you’ll get blowback from all of us.” That rule policed sexual relationships within the organization. My senior client didn’t last long at his firm.
What is most surprising is how little conversational time is given to two of the “big picture” subjects: only 5% of total conversational time focuses on soliciting advice and free riding behaviors. I’ve dealt with soliciting advice elsewhere. The issue of policing free riders, however, is central to what many see as malicious gossip. Free riders are those who take advantage of opportunities. They exploit situations to their own advantage, ignoring others and rejecting a sense of reciprocity. The free rider is the guy who wants insight and help from you, but when you ask for help, he’s just not available. He’s also liable to take credit for your work. Free riders take advantage of the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” rule. The exchange of information on free riders is an important caution. By hearing about the misadventure of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves because we will have successfully avoided making the mistake they made.
Overall, gossip occupies a fundamental social role in our organizations and communities. Gossip is the “central plank on which human sociality is founded.” It is the core of social relationships. In fact, without gossip we’d have no close friends.
As an external consultant, my success is tightly related to an organization’s gossip. Although I never use the term gossip in a diagnostic interview, I inevitably thank the interviewee, and conclude it with what I call a very personal question. “How would I get in trouble in your organization?” Then I ask for examples or situations to explain their answer: the misadventures that are related are gossip. They give me a great deal of information in story form to avoid making the mistakes others have made. As a consequence, by paying close attention, I’ve had the unusual experience of consulting for as few as 5 or 6 years to as many as 20 years for numerous well-known, national and international, multi-billion-dollar organizations. Of the three situations in which I lost consulting jobs over the past 30 years, all were because I missed some of the unique organizational gossip in those firms. That’s a reminder that organizational gossip and organizational rules are unique to each firm and to every industry.
Gossip and relationships
I’ve found gossip exceptionally useful my entire professional life in three varied careers. From the start, as a church minister, I was very accepting of all information that came to me, including gossip. The consequence was that I was the recipient of a great deal of information, a proportion of which was gossip. The same was true as a university faculty member as well as in my role as a consultant in executive coaching. Gossip is exceptionally revealing and phenomenally useful.
. . . Gossip emphasizes three relationship issues.
Receivers of gossip have to be trusted by their sender. If gossip sources are to continue, making judgmental statements about what he or she says would put an end to the conversation. The psychological acceptance of individuals is the only route for people to regularly “spill the beans.” Far too few churchmen understand that people are not going to gossip to those who are members of the “righteous brigade.” Indeed, when acceptance of gossip is lacking in religious organizations, the culture becomes highly plastic, incapable of dealing with significant issues.
People are also not going to gossip to university faculty, consultants, managers or even colleagues who are judgmental, puritanical or non-accepting. Acceptance of any and all information implies protection and confidentiality. Knowledge of gossip in all those situations made me a far more effective and knowledgeable professional.
Just as importantly, gossip highlights both the state as well as the intelligence of a person. To a high degree, a person’s behavioral patterns are reflections of the stories, including the gossip he or she knows. Thus, the form, substance and quality of gossip provided by a person is a significant cue to that person. Gossip, as narrative, contains implicit and explicit embedded values. They enable the thoughtful listener to assess that person’s values, often in regard to the person’s self-identity and their relationship to others and the organization. As a listener, therefore, those values provide me with the means to figure out their bases for conduct, whether ideal or otherwise. Thus, when gossip was brought to me, I could learn as much about the person as I did from the story he or she had to tell. And as a minister, faculty person or management consultant, that was especially valuable information.
Finally, gossip is not superficial, but superb information about a culture. I disagree strongly with the notion that gossip—as I’ve defined it—is merely a direct or indirect form of aggression, like put-downs or trash-talk. Fact of the matter, “dissing” or insulting a person in gossip is rarely the primary goal of the narrative. With James March, I believe that gossip is fundamentally a device to create order and to make sense out of experience. It increases cultural databases, sets parameters for the good and evil, and points to ambiguities and problems. In short, it’s a terrific complementary database for what’s going on with people and organizations, a perspective that is not readily available otherwise. There’s truth in my revision that if you can’t say something good about a person, it may be very smart to say something bad.
A significant role for gossip?
I believe gossip’s response to and impact on an organization cannot be overstated. Karl Weick affirms that our attitudes to stories, like those we define as gossip, are upside down. Stories are not a symptom of culture. Culture is a symptom of storytelling. So, once more, you’ll be very sorry if organizational gossip is not readily available. You’re limiting your effectiveness. But more importantly, you’re liable to get fired because of your ignorance.