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Have I Got Dirt For You - Using Office Gossip to Your Advantage

It all started in one of my corporate communications classes at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. My students and I had been looking at various organizational diagrams, examining how information flows in an organization. Is it better to send information top down or bottom up? What role do the grapevine and gossip play in all of this?

Dominique Darmon | 1 september 2022 | 3-4 minuten leestijd

‘If you discovered that two of your colleagues are having an affair, would you gossip about that? Should you?’ I asked my class.

The students laughed, and agreed that this bit of information is juicy indeed, but most answered no, they would keep the information to themselves. ‘It’s not my business after all.’

‘Let’s say that the CEO is sleeping with the secretary,’ I insisted, ‘Even though she is at the bottom of the pyramid in the organization, she will have a lot more power and influence than your line manager. Also, if you go out drinking with your colleagues, and she is there, you will certainly avoid bad-mouthing your boss if you know she’s involved with him.’

The students agreed. In this case, gossip means survival.

This discussion made me realize the importance of gossip. But it’s bad reputation seemed to stop people from taking it seriously.  

My curiosity was piqued, so I started doing research on the topic.  I read a lot of articles condemning gossip, likening it to bullying and accusing it of creating a toxic workplace. The majority of the articles I read urged employees to refrain from gossiping, and gave tips to managers on how to eliminate it from their offices.

I found this surprising, given that several studies claim that gossip is a strong part of human nature, and central to our social life. In his best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari (2014) says that it is because of gossip that we, as a species, actually began to rule the planet. Before we knew how to gossip, we were no different from other mammals in the food chain. By learning to gossip, we were able to create friendships and alliances, which allowed us to cooperate with each other, and survive.

Today, we are no longer talking about which caveman is hostile, of course. But by gossiping at work, we can better understand the corporate culture and learn from the mistakes of our colleagues, without having to make them ourselves. We can create alliances and friendships that are invaluable to our careers. Gossip is indeed an extremely important communication tool.

However, it needs to be done well. And that is no easy task!

Research shows that people who claim to never gossip tend to be considered as socially inept, but those who are constantly gabbing at the coffee machine are quickly seen as untrustworthy. There is an optimal amount of time one should gossip – somewhere in the middle—which we call the sweet spot of gossip. However, it’s not only the amount of time one spends gossiping that will make or break an employee or manager. Other factors such as credibility, what we gossip about, whom we gossip with, culture and place, all play an equally crucial role in the art of gossiping successfully at work.

Basing myself on academic research, interviews, and anecdotes from TV series, film and literature, as well as reflecting on my own faux-pas, I provide the readers with rules on how to best use gossip to their advantage. Here are a few:

To managers:

-Just accept your employees will gossip, and most probably about you.

-Understand what triggers your employees to gossip. By being open and transparent, you can minimize it.

To employees:

-Managers hate gossip. Even if you are dishing out positive information at the coffee machine, your boss most likely won’t see the difference, and see you in a negative light.

-Take your time to see whether a colleague is trustworthy before sharing too much. Start with less sensitive information before you launch into the really juicy stuff.

-Don’t get caught. As much as I love to gossip, it’s best when it stays a secret!

You will find many more tips and useful information in the book. After reading it, I am convinced that you will have all the tools you need to gossip well!

Over Dominique Darmon

Dominique J. Darmon is sinds 2012 senior lecturer aan de Haagse Hogeschool. Ze doceert Internationaal Communicatiemanagement en is lid van de onderzoeksgroep Verandermanagement.

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