Go Ahead, Enjoy a Little Office Gossip
Right after your mother told you "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all," she probably added "and it’s not nice to talk behind someone’s back."
Gossip, she scolded you, is nasty and impolite, but let’s be honest, to some degree you probably do it anyway. Why is that and how bad should you feel about it?
Your Primate Brain
According to a recent in-depth Salon article by Robert Sapolsky, you can blame your hunter gatherer ancestors for your inability to stop talking about other people. Why the obsession with both the guy in the next cubicle and the celebrities on TMZ?
"Because we’re primates with vested interests in tracking social hierarchies and patterns of social affiliation. And celebrities provide our primate minds with stimulating gyrations of hierarchy and affiliation (who is sleeping with, feuding with, out-earning whom). Celebrities also reflect the peculiar distance we have traveled culturally since our hominid past," Sapolsky writes.
The article goes on to explain how our brains are adapted to the savannah rather than the board room and how the urge to gossip is rooted in our deep-seated drive to map out social relations. For survival’s sake, it was important for our ancestors to know who was top baboon, who was on the outs with the rest of the group, and where the bounds of acceptable behavior lay, and it’s nearly impossible for us not to be interested in those things today. Gossip feeds that curiosity.
What About Business?
Which might make you feel better about your occasional furtive reading of Us Weekly, but what does that have to do with your company?
According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, some gossip can actually have positive functions at work too. When we talk about which co-workers are habitually late, who is shirking the most difficult parts of the team project, or who we caught on Facebook during company time again, he explains, we’re actually helping to reinforce office norms, calming our annoyance, and discouraging others from following suit and slacking off as well.
Research shows that "knowing that other people could find out about their behavior boosted the contributions of the most selfish players by 17 to 23 percent. This was enough to turn them into the most generous players. Under the threat of gossip, the takers actually gave more than the givers," Grant writes.
Gossip can also help cement the bonds between team members. According to other research, if you "gossip about members of your team, you’ll be seen as less trustworthy, and your team will become less cooperative and more political. Yet if you gossip about people on someone else’s team, you can actually build trust, promote cooperation, and dismantle politics. Putting down a common enemy is a form of social glue."
The conclusion: go ahead and indulge your impulse to gossip a bit, especially if it’s about a colleague with whom you don’t work particularly closely, or if your comments are focused on maintaining positive office norms. But, of course, don’t take things too far. "I used to see gossip as a vice, and most of the time, it probably is," Grant writes, but he also admits, |I’ve been gossiping more in the past few months."
Do you think a bit of gossip at work is acceptable?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.