Business of Well-being

Spread the Word: Productive Gossip as a Skill

Is gossip among humans equivalent to grooming between primates? Yes, according to psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool and author of "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language." He suggests that gossiping connects social groups together. Evolutionary psychologists believe gossip is an innate human trait meant to increase our chances of survival since people of all ages, generations and societies have done and continue to do it.

Here's why. Early humans lived mostly in small communities, clans or tribes. Everyone knew everyone and they seldom came upon outsiders. To survive, they cooperated with their "in-group" members and sometimes against "out-groups." They also understood that their in-group neighbors were their main competitors for status therefore procreation opportunities. To live successfully in their community they had to be aware of what others were doing to accurately predict and influence their behavior (see where I'm going here?).

Those who were the most successful at managing relationships, just like those who were better at any survival skill, became more attractive mates, thereby more likely to pass down their genes to us.

Our curiosity about others is, therefore, a survival skill used to this day and especially important given our regular interactions with strangers. Gossip is one way we spread news about each other. Gossip is used for a variety of reasons, some more adaptive than others. It can:

  • Balance power; like employees spreading rumors about a boss. Gossiping is a form of covert power, the weapon of the weak.
  • Develop trust: sharing gossip indicates that you trust the person you tell that they won't use the information against you. Those excluded from office gossip, for example, become outsiders not trusted or accepted by the group.
  • Serve as a source of information for employees who otherwise aren't getting anything from management. When gossip is benevolent, it can be a positive force in work groups.
  • Be a way to learn the unwritten rules of work groups by communicating the group's values, customs and rules and can serve as a method of punishing those who go against them.
  • Be used as a dysfunctional strategy to increase one's status at the expense of another's. This objectionable side of gossip is what we usually think of versus the productive ways it can bond people.
  • Provide information about those who matter the most in your life like rivals, colleagues and those with power over you. Humans are most interested in information that can affect their social status. Negative news about someone with greater power than you and about those who are your potential rivals can be taken advantage of but negative information about those lower than you on the totem pole doesn't serve you as well.

It's good to know that gossip is probably instinctual so we don't have to always feel guilty when we indulge in it. Just be careful to use gossip in a useful versus a spiteful way.

Productive gossiping is a skill

Back in the 1980s I read about and followed good office politics advice: listen to (virtually) all gossip but spread none. This kept me in the loop but not as a backbiter that the term gossiper implies. When you're out of the loop - by choice or by exclusion - you miss out on valuable information needed to "play the game."

This includes greater awareness of your organization's informal network, especially important in organizations where seemingly "lesser" players actually have greater influence through their connections to those with superior power. Much work of an organization gets done through these informal networks, which are not found on the formal organizational chart.

Because evolutionary psychologists believe gossiping is an innate human trait enhancing survival, consider it a social skill versus a personal weakness. But seek a balance: avoiding all gossip because you believe it's always destructive will isolate you. But blabbing everything to everyone is also undesirable. To balance gossiping:

  • Know when to say nothing by;
  • Asking if spreading the information will hurt any member of your team or your team;
  • Avoid making yourself sound like the hero when you share information;

Consider these tips to benefit you and your team and lessen the potential damage of rumors:

  • "The Local Media Rule" is a concept I use in harassment training but it also applies to whether to pass on gossip. If what you spread about someone were to show up in your local media or your company's newsletter (not to mention on any social networks) would it embarrass you? If so, don't spread it.
  • Be diplomatic. Rather than saying, "Our new boss is a lousy leader," you could say, "Our last boss was such a great leader," implying that he was better than your present boss.
  • Balance the less-than-complimentary information you pass along with information that makes someone look good. "Carol was a lifesaver in keeping that account." Sharing the credit makes you look good and Carol, too. She'll likely reciprocate in the future when word gets back to her about what you said.
  • Defend your friends. A former, close colleague of mine reported that a mutual co-worker was calling me the "b" word for being assertive. (Back in the 1980s this was a common label applied to assertive women.) I asked if he stood up for me and he answered "no." At no risk to him he could have said, "How do you see her as aggressive?" Or, "I find her to be assertive not aggressive." The only way to diminish malicious, passive-aggressive gossip is to expose it. Then the gossiper will think twice about spreading hurtful opinions to at least you if not to everyone.
  • Communicate openly with employees especially during heightened stress when they're feeling less in control. Don't bother trying to eliminate all workplace gossip since it's probably impossible. Instead talk directly with everyone and keep them posted on changes and challenges that affect them. Since gossip spreads like wildfire in the absence of factual information, don't avoid people but rather be proactive in communicating what's going on.

You can decrease the negative impact of gossiping by following these simple rules. If you feel compelled, however, to spread trash, at least be very careful whom you tell. CYA, if you know what I mean.

Passive-aggressive gossip can be difficult to handle

Even though some gossip may be good for your career, the malicious kind can be a career-killer, not to mention a relationship killer. It falls into the category of passive-aggressive behavior. Manipulative, passive-aggressive behavior is the most difficult and frustrating interpersonal problem for most of us because it's so hidden, indirect and hurtful. Passive-aggressive behavior, including gossiping, is also the most destructive to the health of a relationship. We all manipulate subconsciously or consciously at times.

When you do so, be aware that you're being unassertive and failing to speak directly and truthfully for whatever your reasons. It's very stressful to be on the receiving end of this. Wouldn't you prefer that your upset co-workers talk to you directly versus gossip about you? A key to understanding passive-aggressive behavior is to realize that it's an attempt to get even with you, the aggressive part.

It's an indirect expression of anger or frustration. Apparently gossiping co-workers feel the need to discredit you and don't have the courage to do it openly. Their method is passive. If you're chronically manipulated by someone, you're almost certainly part of the problem. As in all relationships, it takes two to tango. To diminish others' manipulation of you, take responsibility for your own complicity.

Since you can't make others change (be less manipulative) and since all you have true control over are your own choices, you must change your response - or continue to dance the manipulative dance. How do you respond now and what could you do differently?

The main change you'll need to make to extinguish or significantly diminish others' attempts to manipulate you is to expose their attempts, which can feel very uncomfortable. For example, you could say to a colleague who went behind your back,

  • "Jane, it's my understanding that you've told others that I didn't do my share of the work on this project. I'd appreciate it if when you have a problem with me that you bring your concern to me directly rather than to someone else. Then we can discuss it openly and resolve any misunderstandings."

Expose hidden manipulation a time or two and she'll be less likely to manipulate you in the future. If the passive-aggressive person is a customer or a boss with whom you'd be unlikely to be so direct, here's another idea. Your customer says,

  • "Your employees were over yesterday and they actually did a good job!"

Doesn't it sound like he's really saying that they usually don't do a good job? To clarify the customer's hidden message you could say,

  • "Dave, it sounds like what you're really saying is that they usually don't do a good job.  Is that right?"

Whenever you expose manipulative behavior you'll need to be prepared to deal with what the person has to say. If he admits that, "no, they usually don't do a good job," you could address it by saying,

  • "That's unacceptable. Tell me what they need to do better."

Passive-aggressive behavior is especially difficult to handle well when the relationship is one of love or of power. Learn to surface it in a non-defensive manner to create an opportunity to resolve any underlying issues. Then and only then can you know what you're dealing with.

Know the difference between good gossip and destructive gossip

I think we usually know when the information about someone we spread is of the good type or the bad.

  • Does what you're saying make the person you're talking about look good or bad?
  • Does your information make you look better than the person you're talking about?
  • Does your information hurt anyone on your team, therefore the team?

Accept that your impulse to spread information about others is almost certainly a natural instinct. Just rein it in when it's of the destructive nature.

About the Author:

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.

In 1976, after returning from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She then worked for several years as a Program Director at a mental health center. In 1982 she founded InterAction Associates, her management development, coaching and training firm.

For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, customer-service and communication skills. Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you "wake up" to your responsibility in making your desired changes.

Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs. Look for her recently published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Jackie is also a Professional & Stress Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress. You can request her weekly emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper.

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