Typing that headline makes me cringe. I have a long record or opposing gossip in the workplace (and out of the workplace). Bullies often use gossip to achieve their self-centered goals. Bullies can cause tremendous damage to the workforce, and so can gossips. You know, the mean types who make up stuff and purposely set out to destroy their targets' reputations? But it turns out that there is good in gossip.

What's the good in gossip? It controls social behavior. Psychology Professor Frank T. McAndrew, in his article, Gossip Isn't a Flaw-It's a Necessary Social Skill, writes that while we've seen the effects of cruel gossip, but not all gossip is cruel. Some of it demonstrates social skills.

This threw me for a moment, but think about it. We live in an apartment building and more times than I care to admit my little darlings have been overly, ahem, enthusiastic, in their playing. What do I say? "Be quiet. The neighbors can hear you!" Now, this is mainly just to be nice; no one wants a herd of school aged elephants dancing on their ceiling. But I also don't want our downstairs neighbors complaining about us to other neighbors. That threat of "gossip" serves a purpose of giving me an additional reason to reign in my children.

What about at the office? Do we worry about what others think of us? Of course we do. What others think of us affects us deeply. McAndrew writes:

According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who's reliable and trustworthy? Who's a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?

In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy--and strongly favored by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict--and influence--the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.

The genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.

So, people who are good at communicating information about other people are a benefit to your team. This, though, is harmless gossip. Or rather, not mean spirited gossip. It's not harmless to individuals because true mentions of someone's bad behavior will affect their career and that is a harm. But, it's a good harm.

Mean spirited gossip? That has no place in the workplace. Mean behavior should be nipped in the bud and the perpetrators coached and fired if they don't reform. But, people who share honest information? Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to reign that in.

People who don't follow cultural norms get shunned, but it brings them into line. Of course, this is an area where we need to be extra careful. Bob, who cuts corners on his inventory, can bring actual harm to the business by not having accurate counts. But, Stephanie, who is a night owl, isn't hurting the business at all by working an approved flexible schedule. If you can't differentiate between those two situations, you're not a skilled gossiper.

Published on: Jan 26, 2016