Even if you’re a super-busy person with a ton of meetings and deliverables, there’s a good chance you’ve engaged in some workplace gossip at least once in the previous five days. It’s actually very natural; I think once you’ve worked at a place even a few weeks, you know the people who do it the best or the funniest — and when you see them in the hallways, you’re almost expecting that’s where the conversation is likely to head. When I worked at ESPN in New York City, once there was a core group of us working on similar projects, we used to go to Chipotle every Thursday. That thing became an uber-gossip session; awkwardly, about 17 months into the process, one of my co-workers (probably the most aspirational, career-wise, of all of us) would periodically invite our boss. That obviously halted the gossip side of things and made it much more formal. It’s always interesting to think how much social norms can change from the interjection of one person into a situation.
I think everyone who has gossiped probably has an idea why they gossip — it feels good, it relieves stress about a particular topic/person/situation, etc. — and probably has ideas on the origins of gossip (although there’s a good chance people aren’t thinking so deeply about that). I’ve thought about gossip a fair bit, in part because I used to get accused of “being a gossip” (not wholly untrue), and in part because I’m a naturally curious human being.
I came across this article on Harvard Business Review today which purports to explain how to reduce gossip on your team (in essence, stop enabling it). This is maybe the greatest single explainer of gossip at work I’ve ever read, though:
People engage in gossip when they lack trust or efficacy. We become consumers of gossip when we don’t trust formal channels — so we turn to trusted friends rather than doubtful leaders. We become purveyors of it when we feel we can’t raise sensitive issues more directly — so we natter with neighbors rather than confronting offenders.
“… when they lack trust or efficacy.”
Think about this for a second:
- Gossip is a fairly pervasive aspect of many organizational cultures.
- Trust isn’t necessarily at a premium in many orgs.
- Leaders can be doubtful.
- We don’t tend to discuss failure and hard concepts that openly at work.
When you think about Items 2, 3 and 4 above, is it any wonder gossip is as pervasive an organizational fixture as it often tends to be?
Sometimes I wonder whether there really are simpler solutions to this idea of “trusting formal channels” — like leaders simply walking around more, or a more effective internal communications structure, or a re-formulation of meetings. I’m probably naive, though.