Office Gossip: Good or Bad?

Gossip – love it or hate it, we know it forms an integral aspect of human social interaction. From the tea lady to the middle-level executives to top management, there is no running away from the fact that we all love little nuggets of information about each other.

While the general perception of gossip is largely negative, with many preferring to abstain because it is seen as a waste of time and worse, as rumour-mongering, experts say gossip sometimes play an important role in social bonding and creating a sense of belonging.

Urban Health gets an insight into the good, bad and ugly parts of gossip with Veronica Augustin, a lecturer in social sciences from the UCSI University:

IS GOSSIP CONFINED TO CERTAIN GROUPS OR IS IT PRACTISED BY ALL ACROSS BOARD?

Veronica: Based on my two decades of experience at different levels of the organisation hierarchy in this country, it does seem that gossip within an organisation is impartial. It does not discriminate according to race, colour or creed; nor social status or intelligence.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN GOSSIP PRACTICES AMONG STAFF IN SMALL AND LARGE CORPORATIONS?

Veronica: Formal studies need to be done in order to identify significant differences. I’d assume it happens in any organisation size. However, it depends somewhat upon the type of human resources and corporate culture rather than organisation size.

DO OFFICE SET-UPS PLAY A PART IN ENCOURAGING GOSSIP?

Veronica: Open office may encourage more interpersonal communication. If this correlates with the possibility/ frequency of gossip then, yes. Then again, it needs to be taken within the context of the personnel   who create the gossip culture.

HOW DOES GOSSIP AFFECT AN ORGANISATION?

Veronica: If we define gossip as talking about others, then it depends on what sort of gossip. Positive gossip may increase cohesiveness.  Obviously, the opposite type creates more enmity, at most times undeserved.  At the extreme, it could be constituted as libel. Negative gossipers serve to destroy the esprit de corps and bonds within an organisation vital for teamwork.  If false rumours are spread to leaders in the organisation, injustice could occur due to misjudgement of innocent victims.

HOW ABOUT THE ‘VICTIM’ OF THE GOSSIP, WHETHER WHAT IS BEING PASSED AROUND IS TRUE OR OTHERWISE?

Veronica: Gossip is the weapon of destroyers when negative, false and vicious. To simplify things, in relation to gossipers, organisations are made up of 4 types of gossipers- Bright (good), Dark/Bad, Colourless/Neutral and Mixed/combination.  I trust most people can figure out which one exists in their organisation.

HOW SHOULD ONE REACT WHEN HE/SHE IS THE BRUNT OF GOSSIP?

Veronica: Always stay positive!  We can’t control others perspective/attitude towards us as simple as we can our own.  This is a cognitive based approach, popularised by Meichenbaum.  As the late actress Elizabeth Taylor said: “Hey, I’m a star!’.  Don’t let it eat you up. Ignorance is bliss but there are limits.

Once you’ve verified the source of vicious gossip, obviously this person is no friend. Better few good friends than many false ones. It’s good to know who your friends are to prevent repeat of history i.e. the fall of Caesar.

One can either be silent or confront the gossiper, which is good to put the person in his/her place.  Clarification too is good; don’t believe everything someone tells you. If A tells you that B has said something bad about you. It would be good to confront B. Sometimes, B never said anything. A is just acting out of envy@ ulterior motive. Best always to clarify!

Negative gossipers seek to destroy relationships, most often for their own self importance/ agenda. If the impact is severe, sometimes a showdown is best. However, never retaliate likewise. My late grandmother had wise words to this effect: if a dog barks at you, do you bark back?” My advice to innocent victims: Be patient. The truth always reveals itself. On the other hand, if the gossip is true, albeit negative, the guilty victim would be wise to do some self-reflection for their own good.

CAN GOSSIP PLAY A PART IN HEALTHY SOCIAL BONDING?

Veronica: Possibly, if good gossip is spread rather than bad. Complimenting others behind their back, to newbies who are strangers to the organisation is good. Also, always remember to tell nice things to a person, that others have sincerely said about him/her. Restrain from spreading negativity.  Sometimes, people react emotionally with no bad intention at all out of frustration. Never encourage negative gossip. The best is always to not get involved in such gossip.

WHEN SHOULD ONE DRAW A LINE BETWEEN HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY GOSSIP PRACTICES?

Veronica: Seek to build and foster healthy relationships. However, as a friend we would obviously want to protect our friends from harmful gossip. For instance, if aware others are spreading destructive lies about our friends, obviously our duty is to stop this if we are aware.  However, sometimes hearing about others if justified i.e. bosses unfair attitudes, allows us to be better prepared mentally and not take things personally, as we know it’s the person’s problem not our lack. However, as mentioned earlier, verify it as fact rather than fiction.  Most importantly remember people do change. If the gossip norm is brighter, then hopefully this would have a positive influence on the dark gossipers.

HOW CAN AN ORGANISATION INCORPORATE HEALTHY GOSSIP PRACTICES?

Veronica: Do not entertain negative gossip. Reward based on integrity.  Leaders need to act wisely-not based on gossip but on facts. Gossip about organisation issues that focus on solutions rather than empty condemnations. Leaders play a role by setting a good example.

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