Workplace Gossip: A Weapon or a Gift?

Gossip in the workplace can offer clues to power and influence not found on a company’s organizational charts, according to new research from Indiana University.

The study identified subtle ways the targets of gossip are negatively evaluated during formal work meetings, including veiling criticism with sarcasm or talking up another colleague for comparison. It also discussed how efforts to embark on negative gossip can be effectively – and again, subtly – derailed: by changing the subject, targeting someone else for criticism or by pre-emptive, positive comments.

"When you're sitting in that business meeting, be attentive to when the talk drifts away from the official task at hand to people who aren't present," said Tim Hallett, assistant professor in Indiana University (IU) Bloomington's Department of Sociology. "Be aware that what is going on is a form of politics and it's a form of politics that can be a weapon to undermine people who aren't present. But it also can be a gift. If people are talking positively it can be a way to enhance someone's reputation."

Hallett's study, which was co-authored by IU sociologist Donna Eder, a leading authority in gossip research, and Brent Harger, now a sociologist at Albright College, was based on a 2-year ethnographic study of workplace politics at an urban elementary school. The school was undergoing an uncomfortable managerial transition as a new principal began her first full year. Relations with teachers had soured, and when the teachers were unsuccessful in their efforts to lodge complaints through official channels, they resorted to gossip.

Formal vs. Informal Settings

The researchers found that gossip in a formal setting was both similar to and different from informal gossip. Both were almost always negative, yet informal gossip was more direct than formal gossip. Once informal gossip begins, the negative evaluations typically continue with a negative tone but for a shorter duration than the formal gossip.

Gossip in a formal setting is more likely to involve veiled criticism and can be redirected from its negative path by nuanced efforts to change the subject or choose another target for criticism. Hallett explained the nuances can be insightful to others in the room.

"If you're interested in learning how an organization works, you can look at the organizational chart, which can be useful," Hallett said. "But often people say, ‘I still can't tell how things get done, who the prime movers are.’ If you're attentive, you can see who has the informal status, which isn't on the formal charts. It can help you understand how work actually gets done."

The study appeared in the October issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

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