Go Ahead and Gossip

Harvard Business Review

We're all taught that gossip — talking about someone when he or she isn't there — is not only rude but also possibly hurtful to feelings or damaging to reputations. And yet everyone does it. It would be difficult to find an office where there wasn't some sort of chatter about people who aren't present. Should you be polite and stay above it all? Or does it make sense to get involved in this information sharing?

What the Experts Say
Gossip is an important part of life, not just office culture. "We learn who we are through what people say to us and about us," says Kathleen Reardon, a professor of management at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and author of Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation. Because we're social beings, we want to connect to people and talking about others is one way to do that. It's particularly difficult to avoid in an office setting. "Gossip happens all the time so you're going to hear it," says Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. And chances are that you sometimes perpetuate it too. "Research shows that everyone participates in all kinds of gossip: positive, neutral, and negative," says Joe LaBianca, a Gatton Endowed Associate Professor of Management at the University of Kentucky's LINKS Center for Research on Social Networks in Business. Is that wise? Or should you try harder to refrain? Here are several principles to help you decide when to stay above the fray and when to get involved.

Know the benefits
If you have a blanket rule of staying out of discussions about other people, you may be missing out. "You're going to dismiss all kinds of information that could be useful to you, your career, and your work," says LaBianca. Hill points out that listening to office banter is a great way to learn what's going on at your company — what group recently landed a big deal, why the CFO was out of the office for a week, or what initiatives the CEO is likely to approve. Informal exchanges of information can be just as useful as formal ones and they help you connect with colleagues. "It builds a bond because people think you trust them to share sensitive information," says Hill. "Information is power."

Differentiate between useful and negative
Not all gossip is created equal however, and some chatter does have negative implications. "Once you find yourself listening to comments about someone's family or personal life, you've crossed the line," Reardon says. It's also a problem if people are talking about others so often that everyone's afraid of being gossiped about. However, negative gossip is far more rare than we think. "Most of what we call gossip is usually positive or neutral," says LaBianca, and that kind can be quite useful to listen to and pass on.

Remember that it reflects on you
Before you feed information into the grapevine, make sure to consider how you'll be perceived as a result. Listeners might wonder if they can trust you with their information. Negative gossip especially can affect how others think of you. "You want to think about what you're passing on. The person receiving that information is going to use it to evaluate your character," says Hill.

Trust your fellow gossipers
In addition to tainting your own reputation, there is another risk to gossiping: That the subject will find out you talked about him behind his back. Talk only to colleagues you trust not to reveal your actions. If you're unsure about someone's reliability or if you are trying to build a new relationship with someone you don't know well, take it slowly. Trade small, harmless pieces of information at first. Then evaluate your colleague's trustworthiness before moving on to more important topics.

Don't do it openly
Because others are likely to make judgments, be careful about where and how you share information. LaBianca advises against doing it in front of your boss who may look down on such behavior. "Gossiping makes you more influential amongst your peers but it can also get you more negative performance ratings from managers if you're seen as threatening," he says. Do it behind closed doors, and definitely never use email. "You should assume all emails could be made public," says Hill. If others are gossiping in a place you feel is inappropriate, you don't have to chime in. LaBianca points out that you can listen without necessarily contributing. Nodding your head and giving simple responses such as "I didn't know that" allow you to hear information without actively participating.

Intercept negative gossip when you can
If you partake in discussions about others, and you hear something that could harm another person's feelings or reputation, you should speak up. "It takes courage to say, 'That's hurtful to her' or 'I don't see why any of us here needs to know that' but that's what is needed," Reardon says. You can even go a step further, says LaBianca, and neutralize what's been said by adding your own information. For example, if someone speaks poorly of a colleague's performance, you can mention a time you were impressed with her work.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Use your informal relationships to gather information about what's happening at your company
  • Choose your medium wisely — gossiping over email can be particularly precarious
  • Think about how your words will reflect back on you

Don't:

  • Dismiss gossip as useless or petty — it can be a good way to connect with others
  • Gossip in front of your superiors who may frown upon such behavior
  • Turn a blind eye to negative comments about a colleague, especially if they're unfounded

Case Study #1: Use it to test the waters
Carl Kerrigan,* a director of operations at a large pharmaceutical company, sees office gossip as an important communication tool. He admits that he has both listened and fed news into gossip channels. "Those who were the most active gossipers were the gatekeepers of company information. It's useful to take advantage of these people and put your own information in the flow, even adding some positive company spin." When his firm was negotiating a move from its current premises to another site five miles away, Carl mentioned to a few of the gossipers the possibility of relocation and the likelihood that staff would receive a bonus if it all went well. He wanted to gauge reaction. When he heard positive feedback, he gradually fed more information about the move and its benefits. "It proved successful — by the time we publicized the move, most people were accustomed to it and we averted the need for a long consultation process."

He strongly believes that this sort of communication is critical. "Ignoring it or treating it as nonsense without hearing what's being said is negligent in my view," he says.

Case Study #2: Be honest and fair
Sherry Ellner,* a professor at an Ivy League college knows how gossip can make you feel torn. A few years ago she received a call from a colleague, Lauren, who wanted to ask her a confidential question about another colleague, Randall.

Randall and Lauren had been working on a project together that had gone poorly. Randall wasn't pulling his weight and they were going to miss their deadline. Lauren wanted to know if Sherry had experienced similar difficulties with Randall in their years of working together. "When I heard the story, I didn't think it was out of the realm of possibility so I felt quite torn in my loyalties," she says. On the one hand, she respected Randall and didn't want to damage his reputation. She also worried that whatever she said would become part of the rumor mill. On the other, she wanted to help Lauren understand what was going on so she could solve her problem. "When people share gossip with you, there's supposed to be some reciprocity," she says.

After thinking it through, she told Lauren that she had heard stories from other people that were consistent with what she described, but Sherry hadn't personally experienced those difficulties. To her, this felt like a good compromise. "It was gossiping, yes," she says, "but I knew I was being honest and fair." By listening to Lauren, she also gained new insight. "As a consequence of this conversation, I won't recommend Randall again," she says.

*names and other details have been changed

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