Water Cooler Talk: Gossip in the workplace

Water Cooler Talk: How healthy is gossip in the workplace? Can gossip actually improve the workplace?

Mediate2go.com: Water Cooler Talk: Gossip

You are at work, you walk into the lunchroom, and suddenly everyone goes silent. Maybe you are talking about someone, and you accidentally catch yourself looking or staring at him or her. These are signs that you have either been gossiped about, or that you are gossiping.

Researchers have found that almost everyone gossips. In fact, about 66% of all communication is about us, thus qualifying as gossip[1]. Whether it’s about politics, work, philosophy, emotions, feelings about other people, sex, social status or money, everyone gossips in some way. 10% of gossip is misleading and false information, while around 90% is used as a means of finding the truth[2]. Gossip might be bad, but more it’s more likely to be neutral or even good. Gossip can help us feel a sense of belonging within the team, so in many ways, it might help us adapt within a new workplace (to a degree, read below).

So, what makes gossip good or bad in terms of its impact on us? Well, if you gossip about good things, you are more likely “to be well liked, have higher status, and [to be seen] as possessing good information that others don’t have”[3]. This is a great motivator to gossip about good things. Here is a list of other types of good or neutral gossip.

Good or Neutral Gossip:
  • Is based on empathy. Is focused on good intentions towards others
  • Improves learning opportunities: Help us learn from other’s mistakes and identify bad behaviour
  • Identifies new relationships: Help us identify with whom we want to establish and build relationships[4]
  • Disseminates important information[5]
  • Instructs and motivates good behaviour. For example, gossip can teach us appropriate social behaviour, effectively cuing our interactions with others, and even motivating us to behave in particular ways in order to avoid negative reactions[6].
  • Builds relationships and a sense of community[7]
On the other hand, negative gossip has the following characteristics:
  • Attacks, hurts and/or damages another’s reputation: also known as relational aggression[8], negative gossip might hurt one’s chances at professional development
  • Excludes others: negative gossip often excludes someone from social environments, such as in the context of bullying, harassment and discrimination
  • Reduces productivity[9]
  • Decreases trust:  trust is decreased as a result of the fear that rumours might spread quickly if information is revealed. As a result, people might decide to err on the side of caution and not trust others.
  • Increases conflict: negative gossip might increase conflict due to the formation of in and out groups, reducing collaboration
  • Increases stress: negative gossip might create an unhealthy work environment
Mediate2go.com: Water Cooler Talk: Gossip
It’s easy to see how negative gossip can hurt the bottom line of a business. (see our blog on how to make conflict work for your organization). So, how can we ensure that we are gossiping in a positive or neutral way, and contributing to a positive work environment? Reflect on the following questions[10]”:
  1. Is what I am about to say true and necessary to tell others?
  2. Should I state this to the other person involved directly? Did this other person have a fair chance to respond to the issue at hand?
  3. “How would I feel if someone said something similar about me?”
  4. “How would I feel if I saw my words quoted in the daily paper tomorrow?”
  5. “How am I going to feel later if I say this? (or listen to this)” Would I feel embarrassed about it? Would I feel anxious that my employer might know, as it might put my own career development in jeopardy?
  6. “Does gossiping honour my own personal values?”
  7. Does this type of gossip respect the values of my team and organization? 
“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment” - Dorothy Nevill
We recommend the 3D approach to dealing with gossip in the workplace:
  1. Doubt: Don’t assume the information is correct (if it seems malicious), ask how they came to that finding or realization. Give the target of the gossip the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Deflect: Respond in a way to change the topic of conversation, without making a big deal about it, so as not to alienate the speaker. Beyond this, start to use positive gossip to change the communication dynamics you experience with others. Gossip, even positive gossip, is contagious.
  3. Differentiate: Talk about the difference between positive and negative gossip, and the impact on the target of the conversation, and others around. If you feel uncomfortable about participating in the discussion, state your feelings. If the gossip is about you, feel free to have a constructive conversation with the person.
So, this blog does not discourage all types of gossip. Rather, Mediate to Go recommends that you try to be conscious of the types of gossip that you participate in, their impact and then respond accordingly.

Leave a comment on our blog and let us know what you think! Thank you!





[7] Abercrombie, Nicholas (2004). Sociology: A Short Introduction. Short Introductions. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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