The Truth About Gossip

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An interesting story in the New York Times today assesses new research that suggests that gossip is not inherently bad. In fact, a steady flow of gossip through a group helps its members to work better together. Newcomers to an organization pick up on cues to group dynamics through the gossip they hear. Those who lack confidence often realize that they're too hard on themselves when they learn of a colleague's shortcomings. And informal rules are spread through a group based on who and what is gossiped about.

Gossip also helps groups create a sort of narrative memory or record of individual performance. Is this person trustworthy or untrustworthy? Hard working or a free loader? Most interestingly, some of the analysis presented in the article suggests that people who *don't* gossip may be worse off than those who do. The fact that our discreet, well-mannered friends are out of the loop may reflect that they are not effectively functioning as part of the team.

The Times does not fully address one of the problems with the gossip-is-good argument, which is that it is perhaps less good when you are the object, repeatedly, of said gossip. As the Times notes, sometimes the subject of repeated gossip is targeted because he or she flouts the rules: the person who is always late to work, for example, or the person who endlessly squabbles with their co-workers.

But entrepreneurs are in a unique--and perhaps unpleasant--position in that they are ALWAYS the subject of gossip. Your company is your kingdom, right? That means that in the universe that makes up your office, you and your family (yes, your family!) are the equivalent of royals waving from the palace balcony. Every little thing you do is observed, and can serve as fodder for watercooler conversation. Indeed, the Times article brought to mind one of my favorite CEO anecdotes, which comes from Eric Kriss, a former Bain partner who has run several companies and was, most recently, a member of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's cabinet.

Kriss once told me that he first realized how symbolic and ceremonial the role of CEO was when a worker anxiously asked him if the company he ran at the time was going out of business. Kriss was appalled. The company was doing just fine. Why, he asked the worker, did he suspect that the company was failing? Well, the man told Kriss, you drive such a crappy car that the employees noticed, and we talked about it, and we inferred that you were broke. In that case, it seems, the gossip did not promote the interests or welfare of anyone within the company.... unless, I guess, you count that it reminded Kriss that it is important to keep tabs on the chatter on the shop floor.

Last updated: Aug 16, 2005




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