At work, gossip isn't all bad

Gossip can provide 'really valuable information about how to act'

Gossip gets a bad rap, but new research from the Netherlands suggests that—in a professional setting—it can help us understand office culture, gauge our position, and protect ourselves.

For the recent study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers at University of Groningen conducted several experiments to gauge reactions to gossip.

In one experiment, 183 college students wrote a description of their experience participating in a gossip simulation. Specifically, the students were asked to share comments that one member of the group made about another member. Then, the students were asked to answer a short survey.  

The researchers found that participants who had heard positive gossip were more motivated to work on self-improvement, while negative gossip was taken as a warning of what behaviors to avoid. The researchers noted that some participants used negative gossip as an ego boost.

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In another experiment, participants were assigned to be sales agents and received either negative or positive gossip about another person's job performance in that role.

As in the first experiment, participants who heard positive gossip were more likely to focus on self-improvement, while those who heard negative gossip were more likely to raise self-protection concerns and feelings of pride because its self-promotion value.

Elena Martinescu, one of the researchers who led the study, says people use gossip to "infer things about themselves and evaluate themselves without having to test everything."  She likened gossip to a "reality simulator."

Jodi Smith, a human resources professional in Boston, agrees. She says listening to office gossip can provide "really valuable information about how to act on your new job."

Experts say gossip has existed in human societies for so long because it serves an important function in social groups. It is "an early-warning system to alert the group of events that may happen and prepares the ground for emotional readiness for what's upcoming," says Margaret King, director of The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis.

Some caution that spreading gossip—rather than just hearing it—can have unintended negative effects. Howard Forman, a psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, says if you spread gossip, "People won't be comfortable around you." He notes that spreading gossip can feel good in the short run, but can damage relationships over time.

But Martinescu argues that sharing gossip has its value, noting that it can help gain influence in a group, build intimate friendships, and vent frustrations (Carroll, "Today," NBC News, 10/24; Cheng, Counsel & Heal, 10/24; Wood, PsychCentral, 10/25).

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