Jamie Hodari is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Industrious
Is there a figure in the working world more reviled, more often the victim of our eye rolls and disdain than the office gossip? And why not? As conventional wisdom would have it, they cause friends to turn against friends, expose office flings, and make sure to remind you of that Christmas party you’d rather forget.
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But like a good piece of gossip, there are layers to this story. People are fundamentally social, and companies that try to quash social gossip in the workplace and advocate for a strict separation between our personal and professional lives do so at their own peril. Far from being something to discourage, gossip can be a powerful tool for keeping teams engaged, tightly-knit, and happy.
Gossip helps blend the personal and the professional
Conventional thinking about workplace friendships is that they are appropriate only “up until a point,” and that there should be a line between “work” and “life.” Yet more and more companies are actually encouraging social interaction as new evidence emerges about what drives employee satisfaction.
Gallup research has found a clear link between friendship and business results, suggesting that management should care about encouraging meaningful relationships at work. A best friend is strongly connected to workplace productivity, and friendship even trumps motivators like pay and benefits in determining workplace engagement. And these benefits extend well beyond the walls of the office.
One study, for instance, found that people with at least three “vital” friends at work are 96 percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives in general, not just at work.
Friends share stories, talk about their lives, and bond over common experiences. In short, they gossip. By encouraging social gossip, managers help foster workplace relationships and build trust. As employees get to know one another, they feel a greater affinity to their work and their colleagues.
Gossip helps complaints to surface
Office gossip isn’t just an effective way for employees to interact and work with one another. When managers keep their ear to the ground, it also serves as an important tool in gauging employee satisfaction.
Too many managers rely solely on formal reviews and stilted “360 degree” feedback administered impersonally twice a year. Simply understanding what people say and feel outside of structured settings is often more valuable.
Employees are more likely to be honest when chatting in the hallway or cafeteria than when they are in the spotlight of a corporate conference room. Gossip gives managers more direct, immediate, and frequent feedback as to how people are feeling day-to-day. It can help leaders identify problem areas and sources of dissatisfaction that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and use that knowledge to make meaningful changes before molehills grow into mountains.
This might be a bit extreme, but it’s worth noting that Adobe abolished its yearly performance ratings altogether in favor of more frequent informal employee “check-ins” without a set format, frequency, structure, or length. The end result? Underperforming employees were let go at an increased rate, and retention for high-performing employees increased dramatically.
Gossip encourages good behavior
Gossip is more than a form of communication. It’s a way for groups to encourage good behaviors and discourage bad ones. Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin revealed that when people hear gossip about themselves, they are more likely to engage in self-reflection and self-improvement.
Positive gossip can be flattering, which encourages people to keep performing well. And when people hear positive gossip about someone else, it motivates them to strive to reach that person’s level.
And while negative gossip sometimes rightfully receives criticism, recent studies suggest that discussions of truly undesirable group behaviors may actually increase group cooperation.
In a Stanford University study, gossip about participants who selfishly prioritized individual over group needs discouraged exploitation and encouraged honest behavior. In this manner, gossip serves a “check”, deterring employees from engaging in bad behavior, knowing there will be social consequences later on.
Good office gossip is rapidly becoming endangered. The increase in primarily digital interaction, distributed teams, and the rise of the freelance economy mean fewer and fewer people regularly interact face-to-face with colleagues and friends at the office. When we think of the price we pay for those changes, it’s easy to overlook gossip, but the harm is real.
Luckily, countertrends are emerging that promise a return of the fine art of gossip. Forward thinking companies, like Google, increasingly offer free lunch in part because it creates “casual collisions” between employees. And the rise of co-working and social office spaces show that even freelancers and smaller teams crave the type of social interaction that gives rise to creativity, satisfaction, and yes, gossip.
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