Gossip serves a reputational benefit
Have you ever gossiped about people at work and felt bad about maligning their reputation? I have. We’ve all seen colleagues’ reputations rise and fall on the job and it’s a powerful force to reckon with. I had not really given much thought to it until I read new research from Stanford the Graduate School of Business and University of California-Berkeley. The authors, Matthew Feinberg and Michael Schultz, conducted experiments that explain how gossip is actually a good thing and how we are lucky it exists. Gossip is actually a form of reputational alignment. Workplace gossip reforms bullies, keeps good people productive and encourages greater collaboration. It also teaches us what behavior is rewarded and disliked at our companies. And gossip benefits those who are poor actors at work. They learn because they are excluded and find themselves kept off team activities because the good guys get picked instead of them. Eventually, those who are ostracized begin to actively compete to get back in favor and start adopting more generous and altruistic behaviors. (Of course, not everyone)
The researchers also refer to gossip as “reputational information-sharing.” If we did not have it, they point out, employees could not easily pass along information that keeps some of these difficult colleagues at bay. Reputational pass-alongs are also needed because they forewarn those at the top that there are individuals who are not to be trusted from doing something unethical that could cause even greater reputational harm. In fact, gossip serves as an early warning signal that someone needs alignment with the greater collective good and someone ought to keep an eye out on them just in case.